The Social Costs of Crying Wolf or Of Burned Popcorn and Public Goods: False Alarms at Paul Smiths College

Robert Magee, Lead Writer, RMagee@albanylaw.edu

On December 9, the Town Council of Brighton New York held a hearing on the implementation of a municipal law that would fine private parties for issuing repeated, false, fire alarms that are the product of carelessness, negligence, or improper installation.1 The impetus for the law is an ongoing conflict between the Paul Smiths-Gabriela Volunteer Fire Department and Paul Smith College over the number of false alarms the department responds to at the college, routinely two to three times per week.2 The college’s fire detection system, which feeds directly to the fire department, is such that the triggering of an alarm at the college immediately dispatches the fire department and is entirely up to code.3 This isn’t of much comfort to the Fire Department, which scrambles eighty times per year without good reason, or to the taxpayers, who foot the bill.

The Fire Department/College conflict speaks to the Free Rider Problem.4 Paul Smith College (and by extension, its students) is a taxpayer and is entitled to the benefits of whatever contract is drawn up between the Town of Brighton and the Fire Department, but overuse by the College of the Fire Department is an inefficiency and a dangerous one.5

The problem of false fire alarms has been dealt with before.  The issue here isn’t whether the Town of Brighton has the authority to impose the fine,6 as a municipality in a home rule state, it likely does.7 Further, fines for false alarms are hardly inimical per se as discouraging genuine fire alarms.8 Indeed, it’s a class E felony to repeatedly and knowingly convey false information about the occurrence of a fire,9 it is the quintessential abuse of First Amendment freedom.10 Criminal penalty lies even where the fire exists but is known by the complaining citizen to be safe and authorized by permit.11

In 1995, in New York City, Mayor Giuliani attempted to remove street fire alarm boxes from New York City’s streets because of their prolific use in the commission of the aforementioned felony.12 The problem Giuliani sought to solve in doing this is similar to the problem addressed in Brighton on December 9th: the fire reporting system is faulty.  The College has proposed a solution whereby the Fire Department will wait for on-site confirmation of danger before scrambling their department.13 Fire Chief Roger Smith rejected this solution as jeopardizing the safety of students by delaying response time.14 The solution proposed by the College is an inversion of the one imposed in New York City.  There the municipality controlled the problematic apparatus and simply sought to withdraw it.  Resistance was substantial and operated on the same argument the Fire Department has used to resist the College’s suggestion here: safety first.15

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