Howard County has 911 emergency service, but is anybody listening?

December 20, 1992|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

When Anne L. Dodd looked out of her window in October and saw a man on an electrical tower threatening suicide, she immediately dialed 911. To her amazement, she got a recording -- three times.

"You cannot imagine how it felt to watch the scene from my kitchen window while being kept on hold after dialing 911," Mrs. Dodd wrote in a letter to a county official. "To be placed on hold awaiting an operator when one has a routine concern is one thing. To watch the seconds pass like hours in an emergency situation is quite another."

Another caller reached police, who persuaded the man to climb down from the tower.

That problem with the county's 911 system is one of several that county officials have learned of since the system started 15 months ago.

Citizens have complained that when they dialed 911 to report emergencies they got a recording and were placed on hold. Other callers have said they were instructed to dial 911 when they called the police department to make routine reports.

County Administrator Raquel Sanudo said last week that the county plans to install a non-emergency number within two weeks to free up the 911 line.

Officials also will determine if the center needs more employees and will establish a system to separate non-emergency from emergency calls.

The county also plans an education campaign to publicize the new number and its purpose. The center takes an average of 395 calls a day -- 67 of them on the 911 line -- and usually four call-takers and four dispatchers answer calls on each shift, said Sgt. Richard Witte, the center's interim chief.

The 911 system "has to have priority," Ms. Sanudo said. "People being placed on hold, now that's not acceptable."

The Bureau of Central Communications was billed as a streamlined, cost-effective service when it opened in September County Executive Charles I. Ecker last week said center planners miscalculated the number of emergency and non-emergency calls that would come in on the 911 lines and the staff's ability to separate them quickly, he said.

Mr. Ecker said that even before the citizens' complaints there were internal concerns about routing all calls through 911.

He said at that the time it seemed like the best decision to have an all-purpose number.

"We tried it, and it didn't work," he said. "It was a mistake, and we're correcting it."

Ms. Sanudo said the cost has not been determined, but she expects it to be "nominal." According to Sgt. Richard Witte, C&P Telephone will assume the cost for computer software changes.

But critics say county administrators moved too slowly to fix a potentially dangerous flaw.

In a letter to the county executive Nov. 24, County Councilman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, noted that he and others first met with managers of the communications center in early July, following up with letters and reports of more incidents. He and Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass say they have received at least six complaints from people who called 911 and were put on hold or got a recording.

In mid-October the communication center's director, Paul N. Hajek, was fired and the department was placed under Ms. Sanudo's supervision. Mr. Hajek has said the county told him he was being fired for "poor performance."

But the problems with 911 continued.

"The solution has already been too long in coming and we must take some immediate action," Mr. Farragut said in his November letter.

He cited an incident that occurred Nov. 9, when a member of the Columbia Community Players theater group fell from a ladder at the Slayton House Theater. The man was bleeding from the head and appeared to be seriously hurt.

But when a member of the group dialed 911, she got a recording and was disconnected. A second caller got through. The man was not seriously injured. "I've never heard of that before," said Bernice A. Kish, manager of the Wilde Lake Village Center, which houses the theater.

In a "panicky situation," Ms. Kish said, an adult could figure out what to do, but a child probably couldn't. She took her concerns to Mr. Farragut.

The councilman said he was disappointed that the county's response was slow. But he said it's possible to lose track of an issue with all the problems facing the county.

Ms. Sanudo said there was no immediate response because county officials had to evaluate the problem first and then consider solutions.

Mr. Ecker said he learned of the 911 problem through Mrs. Dodd. He said the county was working on the problem but couldn't explain why it wasn't solved sooner.

"That was a very important priority, and it just didn't get done," he said.

He and Deputy Administrator Cecil Bray said the new plans should correct the problem "99.9 percent."

The county was fortunate that no one was hurt because of delays when calling 911, Mr. Ecker said.

Celia Greenberg, 39, of Harper's Choice, agrees. In October she called 911 to report that her neighbor, who has multiple sclerosis, had fallen. She said she got a recording twice.

"I'm just very thankful it wasn't one of my children choking," she said. The neighbor was all right.

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