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updated: 12/19/2011 5:15 AM

Alarm network draws early opposition in Elgin

Systems vary across the suburbs

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  • Elgin fire code official Ron Sessions, right, and fire Lt. Scott Heinrich show off a wireless fire alarm monitoring system at Fountain Square in Elgin. The city is considering whether to establish its own wireless alarm network.

      Elgin fire code official Ron Sessions, right, and fire Lt. Scott Heinrich show off a wireless fire alarm monitoring system at Fountain Square in Elgin. The city is considering whether to establish its own wireless alarm network.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer


After a flurry of backdoor opposition to a proposal that would alter how fire alarms are monitored in Elgin, city council members are set to move forward next month on a toned-down version of the plan.

City staff members have been researching the possibility of creating a city-owned fire alarm monitoring network for months. The network, which would bring Elgin up to speed with dozens of other communities across the region, faced early complaints from some in the business community.

A radio alarm network would transmit wireless signals from a community location to an Elgin dispatcher when a fire alarm goes off, initiating an emergency response.

City Manager Sean Stegall said council members, who first were briefed about the idea over the summer, will vote on hiring a consultant to explore the city's possibilities with the network in January.

The plan, however, would not include a requirement that local businesses contract with Elgin for the services.

That proposal was an early point of contention for business owners, and the creation of a network itself has fomented spirited debate in other cities that have considered it. Some oppose the move because it represents government entrance into what once was a private industry.

How these proposals are implemented varies by city. Mundelein, Des Plaines, Crystal Lake, Grayslake and Hoffman Estates all require businesses to pay for monitoring services through a municipal network. Naperville offers the service, but allows businesses to contract with private companies instead.

Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles considered jointly launching a network about a year ago but ultimately decided against it.

Roger Breisch, executive director of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce, said the original plan would not have forced anybody into the services but merely to offer them. That proposal still was opposed.

"It just doesn't make sense for government to get into moneymaking ventures when private businesses are doing just fine," Breisch said.

The Elgin Radio Alarm Network, as it would be called, could give the city the chance to transition from phone lines to an entirely wireless radio network and give the government more control over alarm monitoring within the community. Almost half the businesses in Elgin already have made the switch to wireless -- it's generally faster, cheaper and more reliable, and it eliminates the need for a separate phone line.

Councilman Richard Dunne, who also is a lieutenant with the Elgin Fire Department, has been pushing for the city to implement its own network for years. He said safety concerns are most important to him in this discussion.

"And not just for the community. Life safety for myself and other firefighters," Dunne said.

Businesses currently choose their own private alarm monitoring companies, which, proponents of the city system point out, adds an extra step between the alarm and city dispatch.

Kimberly Keating, executive officer of Alarm Detection Systems in Aurora, and her colleagues have monitored similar proposals across the suburbs and worked to bring attention to the drawbacks of government control.

"The trend really kicked in when everybody started having these huge budget deficits," said Keating, whose 44-year-old company has more than 100 customers in Elgin. "These cities were scrambling to find more money."

The argument about wireless radio networks being safer isn't new, she said. The technology has been around for more than a decade in the private sector.

As communities have increasingly chosen to create their own networks, many have passed ordinances requiring businesses to purchase or lease equipment from them as well as buy the monitoring services from them. Keating said the market rate for the services is $45 to $50 per month, but governments that mandate business participation charge far more.

Crystal Lake charges $80 per month and requires local businesses to become its customers. That sends all alarms straight to the emergency dispatch center, preventing a delay that Crystal Lake Fire Prevention Bureau Chief Jerry Larsen said could take up to 15 minutes.

Deputy Chief Paul DeRaedt said the price is higher now because the city is paying off all the new equipment, something that could take up to five years.

"There is the thought that we could re-evaluate the monthly fee when the equipment is paid off," DeRaedt said.

Naperville, the first community in the region to launch its own network, charges $50.38 per month and monitors alarms for about half the businesses in the city. That price has not changed since the program began in 2002.

According to a presentation to Elgin City Council members in June, it would cost the city about $300,000 to establish its own system. The presentation indicated a monthly monitoring rate of $80. If businesses were required by ordinance to join the program, it would turn a $57,000 profit for the first five years, assuming a total of 237 alarm systems, according to the presentation.

Dunne said that money shouldn't be seen as revenue, but as "recovery." By charging for the alarm equipment and the monitoring, Elgin could get back some of the costs of providing fire service, he said.

Patrick Scar, vice president of advocacy for the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce, argued against similar ideas when they were presented in Naperville.

"That's a tax," Scar said. "They can call it whatever they want but it's ultimately a tax leveraged on the business community."

Elgin council members have not officially taken up the discussion in a public forum, but the topic was mentioned during November budget discussions. Mayor David Kaptain opposed the plan to require business involvement from the start.

"I think you have to allow competition," Kaptain said. "I'm not comfortable with legislating something like this and forcing people to do business with the city."

Once a consultant is hired to research the feasibility of an alarm network, public hearings will be held to engage the business community. Regardless of opposition from some sides, City Manager Stegall said the city still has to do its research.

"We have an obligation to provide the highest level of public safety services to a community at the lowest possible cost," Stegall said. "In that endeavor, we are expected by the community to pursue every available avenue."

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