Firemen frustrated at prankster goading businesses to set off fire alarms

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- A malicious prankster still has businesses, police and firefighters in Bellingham on edge as he convinces employees to activate their own alarm systems. It's causing some serious problems.

The series of prank calls began Sunday evening. The Hotel Bellwether was an early victim as the prankster called a front desk clerk claiming to be from the fire department, saying there was a serious emergency and the clerk needed to act immediately. Hotel Bellwether's Assistant Food and Beverage Manager Michael Knutti says the prankster told the clerk, "if she did not break one of the sprinkler heads, one single sprinkler head that all of the sprinklers in the whole hotel would go off and flood the entire hotel."

So the clerk broke the sprinkler head, water flooded the lobby, the alarm went off, and the entire hotel had to evacuate. It was some 100 guests forced from their rooms about 10 o'clock at night. Then Knutti says the prankster called three or four other hotels that same night, with the same story, convincing at least one to activate its fire alarm.

"This is a malicious, willful act of intending destruction and damage," said Bellingham Police Lt. Bob VanderYacht.

According to VanderYacht, every day this week the prankster has made at least one fake call, contacting hotels, motels, fast food restaurants and other kinds of businesses. The prankster's made at least 15 to 20 so far.

You might think the timing is ripe to be a senior prank, but VanderYacht says that's not consistent with their history and Assistant Manager Knutti also doesn't think it's kids.

"So this is not just some mischief - it's not kids having fun," Knutti said.

Bellingham police think one person or group is behind all the calls. It's far beyond malicious mischief, Lt. VanderYacht says, as calling police and fire to non-emergencies has serious consequences.

"And it detracts from real situations that are going on and it also starts to create some doubt about whether any alarm is valid," VanderYacht said.

Police say that when they catch this prankster, and they believe they will, they could be hit with a gross misdemeanor or, if there's enough damage, they could even be facing felony charges.

And the police want to assure businesses that, in spite of the prank calls, first responders are not hesitating when an emergency alarm comes in.