Redialing 911 in Howard

December 23, 1992

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker is on the money when he calls the county's 911 emergency phone service "a very important priority."

Unfortunately, Mr. Ecker is also correct when he says the county's handling of its 911 operation has been "a mistake." In fact, it has been downright abysmal.

Since the Ecker government set up the Bureau of Central Communications in September 1991, a jammed 911 line apparently hasn't preceded a real tragedy. For that, Howard County officials should consider themselves lucky. Otherwise, they might now be dealing with something far more serious than the anger of citizens who have called 911 and been put on hold.

That's not to downplay those citizens' angry feelings, though. Imagine the frustration and feeling of helplessness of the woman who thought she was witnessing a suicide attempt, dialed 911 -- and got a recorded message. Three times.

Howard County officials made the first of two glaring errors when they decided that emergency and non-emergency calls alike would be routed to the 911 number. This determination was reached despite some internal concerns about the wisdom of such a move.

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. By opting for what is clearly an inadequate system, the county got inadequate results. The Ecker administration shouldn't be surprised that the small staff of operators it has hired can't handle all the calls. It should be embarrassed.

County leaders committed error No. 2 by taking far too long to fix the obvious flaws. The director of the communications center was fired last October, over questions of management of the 911 system. Now, two months after the firing and 15 months after the service was launched, Howard County officials are ready to announce and publicize modifications that will include a new telephone number for non-emergency calls, thus helping to free up the 911 line. Finally.

One county politician, after expressing his disappointment with the bugs in the 911 system, offered the excuse that county leaders might have been distracted by all the other serious issues they must confront. Granted, the leaders of a suburban jurisdiction must deal with many problems, but few things are more important than maintaining the public's safety and well-being. Key to meeting that task is a professionally operated 911 system. It's about time Howard County had one.

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