When your home security system goes off—either by false alarm or legitimate threat—police may be dispatched to your home. Make sure you know what to expect when that happens and how to handle false alarms.
What happens when your alarm is triggered?
Depending on your monitoring type—self-monitoring or professional monitoring—you could be looking at a couple of different processes.
Most home security providers offer professional monitoring services. In the event that your alarm goes off and you don’t disarm your system from the control panel or app, your monitoring center will attempt to contact you before sending emergency dispatch. Different companies may have different processes or policies when this occurs, but most generally follow these steps:
- Contact the call list. Monitoring companies will try and get in touch with a list of primary contacts first, so do try and answer their call at any given moment.
- Call emergency services. If no one answers and the alarm is still going off—or if it makes contact and establishes a legitimate emergency—the monitoring center will contact local dispatch on your behalf using specialized software or more traditional methods.
- Provide information to the police. Alarm companies are often under legal obligation to share pertinent files or details if subpoenaed or asked by authorities, so your monitoring company may share your information if needed.
Response times and steps taken before police are called can vary between companies, but these three steps generally apply across the board.
If you have a professionally monitored system, apply and pay for a local alarm permit as soon as possible. Self-monitored systems may need a permit if they are occasionally connected to monitoring services—but check local laws just to be sure. Permits cost anywhere from $25 to $100 per year, but if you don’t get one, you could be fined a base fee of $100 with an additional $100 to $250 for each incident without a permit.
For self-monitored systems, you or whoever is the primary contact for your system will receive an alert for the tripped alarm. It’s then up to you to decide if it’s a genuine emergency or a false alarm. If there’s a true issue, you call the police yourself.
What happens once the police are alerted?
In the event of an emergency, police will be dispatched to your home. But how long you wait could vary depending on your area, local needs, weather, and the severity of the incident.
For urgent calls, you could be looking at anywhere from 2 to 15 minutes. For less urgent calls, you may be waiting quite a bit longer while your local police department answers higher-priority calls. Police do their best to prioritize and answer calls in a reasonable order and speed, so try and be honest about your situation.
Once the police arrive, they’ll move through some standard steps.
1. They clear the property
First, officers will check out the property to make sure it’s safe and secure. If you aren’t home at the time, they won’t be able to enter your home unless there are suspicious signs or evidence of someone in danger. Officers may forcibly enter your home to check for danger or intruders if there’s probable cause—say police hear or see thieves inside or find proof of a break-in. But there may not always be obvious signs.
So if you’re too far to let them into your home but would like them to do a quick check inside, ask a trusted friend or neighbor with front door access to let officers in.
If you are on the scene and officers ask to enter your home for a full sweep, you can ask questions if you feel uncomfortable or would like more information about what they may be looking for. You can also refuse them entry if you wish.
2. They take statements
Regardless of the outcome, officers will take statements to get a full picture of the incident. If the situation leads to a longer investigation, it could affect what and how many questions are asked. But if that’s the case, they’ll most likely follow up as they learn more.
No matter what, take the time to ask for names and contact information from police responders—this will make it easier to follow up at a later time.
3. They gather footage and other evidence
Not all situations may call for gathering files and evidence, but should an officer ask you for camera footage or anything else, you can choose if you’d like to share that information. You can even be selective about which video files you share.
You may want to ask questions about what they’re looking for or what timeframe they’re examining. However, if you’re presented with a warrant or subpoena, then you must provide that footage.
4. They investigate
Should your particular case require investigation, officers will steadily work on the case and reach out to you if needed—like updating you on any stolen items or asking follow-up questions.
If you’d like to check in yourself, pull up the names and contact information you gathered from on-scene officers. Call the non-emergency line for the correct precinct and use the case number, if you have it, to get an update.
What should I do if it’s a false alarm?
False alarms should be handled swiftly to avoid fines and other fees—as well as misuse of city resources and preventable accidents. From the police perspective, a false alarm is defined as a situation where authorities arrive, search the property, and find no sign of criminal or suspicious activity.
For false alarms with professionally monitored systems, turn off the alarm with your PIN—most likely from the control panel, keypad, or mobile app—as soon as you can. If you get a call from your monitoring center, answer right away to let them know it was a false alarm and that you don’t require any further action. Some monitoring companies provide text alerts, in which case you can simply text back to let them know it’s a false alarm. You may need to provide a dedicated word or phrase to verify your identity.
Self-monitored security systems most likely won’t require follow-up action, since the alert doesn’t pass through a professional monitoring company. If there’s an incident, you’d be the one to contact the police.
Always follow your gut and call 911 if you feel unsafe, but take the service seriously. Keep in mind that once you call, you may not be able to cancel dispatch if you realize it’s not a valid emergency. If you rack up false alarms, you could be fined up to $100 for each incident as a misuse of city resources.
Should your false alarm be a matter of user error or system malfunction, take immediate action to keep it from happening again. Move sensors to better areas or get more familiar with your home security system.
If other family members or roommates are struggling with the system, take some time to teach and train them on how to properly arm and disarm the alarm. You may also want to run them through best practices for sensors or other devices to avoid falsely tripping the alarm. With most home security systems, you can also assign individual arm/disarm codes that can help mitigate user errors that lead to false alarms.
When your alarm goes off, first ensure it’s a genuine emergency and then act accordingly for the quickest police response. Beware of false alarms and take steps to prevent them as much as possible.
Should you face a break-in or security issue of some kind, call the police. If you’re unsure about officers entering your home or obtaining footage or other evidence from you, ask questions. You can refuse if you feel uncomfortable, but only as long as police haven’t presented a subpoena or warrant.
To prevent safety issues and keep a closer eye on your home and neighborhood, you may naturally be drawn to community watches and other joint efforts. But before you lean into those systems, ensure it’s the right call for your area and neighbors.
Laura West is an editorial expert with a specialty in simplifying concepts, software, and tech for the everyday person. She’s worked in a variety of topics, including solar, home security, and B2B finance software, and she’s passionate about providing clear, concise answers in the most useful ways. In her free time, Laura writes creatively and rants about her current TV obsessions—usually with a steady stream of coffee.
Eric Paulsen is a writer, editor, and strategist who has been creating content in the B2B, healthcare, FinTech, home security, and government sectors for more than five years. He holds an MFA in creative writing and lets everyone in his life hang that over his head. When he doesn’t have his hands deep in some piece of content, he’s either watching baseball or praying for the offseason to end quickly.