MAHOPAC, N.Y. - How do you define an “alarm?”

The was at the core of the debate between some senior citizens and members of the Carmel Town Board at last week’s meeting, as the residents claimed the $40 alarm permit fee they were being charged was not in the spirit of the law.
In December 1992, the Town of Carmel passed a local code that calls for residents to pay an annual alarm permit fee—currently $40—if such a device is installed in their home.

Chapter 37 of the code, Alarm Devices and Systems, states that no residence or business shall “install or maintain any police and/or fire alarm device… without having obtained a permit from the permitting authority.”

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The code defines an alarm device as “any device which when activated by fire or other emergency, transmits a prerecorded message or other signal by telephone, radio, central alarm station, audible signal and/or visible signal designed to cause notification of the police department and/or fire department for a response.”

The group of senior residents at last week’s meeting reside at The Retreat at Carmel, where they say they are being charged the annual alarm permit fees for their pull-string alarms; alarms, which, when activated, will set off an audible alarm and flash a light, but are not connected to a central alarm station that would directly notify the police, fire department or EMS. They pointed out that senior communities throughout Carmel and Mahopac have similar pull-string alarms, and none of them should be included under Chapter 37’s edicts.

“The $40 pull-string fee—we consider it an attack,” said Jack Bell, a Retreat at Carmel resident. “This is not about $40. It’s about principle.”

Bell said that the law’s permit fees were intended to be a way to reduce the cost of false alarms. But since the pull-string alarms aren’t connected in any way to first responders, they should be exempt from the fee.

“They are not connected to a central station,” Bell said. “I believe the town is taking advantage of these regulations.”

Supervisor Ken Schmitt said he doesn’t view the code as ambiguous and feels that the reason for the complaints is because of the money.

“I see no reason to eliminate pull alarms from the code,” he said. “They are designed to notify someone if there is an emergency. This is a $40 fee. If there was no fee attached, no one would care.”

Councilman John Lupinacci agreed, saying the complaints were all about the money.
“We have gotten angry letters telling us, ‘we don’t care about your fees; we won’t pay your fees!’” he said. “If you want to tighten up the language [of the code], I love it. But let’s talk about what this is really about. It’s about 11 cents a day. Is it an alarm—yes or no?”

Lupinacci said the pull-string devices fall under the code as defined: even though they are not wired into a central station, they cause an “audible signal and/or visible signal designed to cause notification of the police department and/or fire department for a response,” even if it is done by someone who observes the signals and then calls 911.

Councilman Frank Lombardi, who has visited The Retreat at Carmel and spoken with the residents about their complaint, said he’s not so sure about the code’s interpretation. 

“I am not sure that the indirectness of it makes it an alarm,” he said.

The board discussed devices such as the Medic Alert bracelets and medallions seniors can wear and press for help should they fall and can’t get up. Lombardi said he felt they didn’t fall under the code, but Lupinacci insisted they did.

Schmitt said representatives from The Retreat have been meeting with him for some time on the issue and were not happy with the answers he was giving them.

“You weren’t satisfied with the answers you got from me, so you lobbied other board members who would listen to you.”

“You just gave me the bum’s rush,” Bell shot back.

Bell said if one goes by the way “alarm” is defined in the code, it can reach absurd proportions.

“We have people with Life Alert, ADT, car alarms—where does it stop?” he asked. “Next week we will be back here talking about alarm clocks.”

Jerry Ryff, another Retreat resident, said that the pull-string alarms should not fall under the code because “they don’t do anything.”

“Someone has to recognize it (the sound or flashing lights) and then do something [such as call 911],” he said. “It doesn’t initiate anything on its own. The purpose of the fee is to compensate the town [for false alarms]. This system doesn’t [create false alarms].”

Councilman Suzi McDonough was absent from last week’s meeting, but the remaining four board members seemed evenly divided on rewriting the code and whether to eliminate the pull-string alarms from permit requirements. They said they would revisit the matter with McDonough present and if a majority felt the code needed amending then it could be pursued.