Three Reliable Winning Numbers


May 30, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

It happened two years ago in Forest Hill. Gary Ferandes went into diabetic insulin shock at home, while tending his two small children. Five-year-old Nicole dialed 911 for the emergency center. Dispatcher Sherman Kirk coaxed the address out of the frightened child. Within minutes, an ambulance crew arrived and revived the unconscious man with a glucose injection before rushing him to the hospital.

"We had been watching the television show, "Rescue 911," and we told Nicole that if anything ever happens here, if anything happens to Daddy, you call 911," mother Vicki Ferandes explained.

It's the vital message that the CBS-TV show has been preaching for four years, while staying in the top program ratings. The "reality re-creation" TV show has had a major impact in reinforcing public awareness of the one number that reaches all agencies of emergency help.

Barely 25 years after the first central 911 emergency system was installed in a small Alabama town, that three-digit telephone number now covers three-quarters of the U.S. population. With rapid "caller identification" units, the emergency centers can instantly locate the name and address (and fire/police district) of the phone without the anxious passage of time eliciting that information from the caller.

Harford County's Emergency Operations Center gets 50,000 calls a year to channel fire, medical and police assistance to those in urgent need. Located in Hickory, the center directly dispatches the closest fire and ambulance units. It also switches law enforcement calls to municipal police, State Police or the Sheriff's Office.

Harford plans to move the 911 center to a new underground center next to the existing facility. The county has a $1.8 million federal grant for the project, has hired an architect and hopes to be in the hillside bunker by the end of 1994.

Director James Terrell says the center's existing equipment is "pretty much state of the art," but the new 9,000-square-foot building will allow for greater efficiency, the inevitable expansion of staff and, most importantly, will be more secure from the elements.

Harford's 911 system has recently become a political issue, albeit a minor one. County Executive Eileen Rehrmann wants the center to directly dispatch sheriff's deputies to emergencies, rather than taking initial information and then switching calls to the Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Robert Comes was an early advocate of that improved integration and has not yet publicly backed away from the idea. The problem is that Mrs. Rehrmann also proposes creating a county police force and taking over the Detention Center, stripping the elected sheriff of most duties and powers. Her study committee is to report this week on the feasibility of that shift.

The integration of 911 dispatchers would help cut response time, while providing for more efficient use of manpower, Mr. Terrell said. "It shouldn't be political," he added.

Now, the sheriff's deputies and the 50 troopers at the State Police barracks in Bel Air alternate taking police calls from the 911 center. But the State Police plans to phase out 911 response in the county, to cut costs and redefine its law enforcement role. That will place more responsibility on dispatchers for the sheriff's deputies, increasing the need for better coordination.

Since the 911 system's first full year in 1985, the number of emergency calls has more than doubled. And each call for help generates six or seven more calls to deploy the response teams, Mr. Terrell noted. That's over 350,000 calls a year for the 20 dispatchers at Hickory.

Harford countians, including the youngest kids, have been highly responsible in using the 911 line, too. Fewer than 2 percent of all calls can be called "misuse, but not abuse," Mr. Terrell said, and only a dozen last year were pure false alarms, which are criminally prosecuted.

Talking to some 40,000 youngsters, as young as 3 and 4 years old, about the system annually, the 911 center has greatly increased public awareness of the hot line, both for children and for their parents.

"If we win them over when they're young, we have them for life," Mr. Terrell said. He credits the "Rescue 911" TV program, hosted by William Shatner, for promoting awareness of the lifesaving system, although it may unrealistically raise hopes that the number is a cure-all for every emergency.

"There's not always a happy ending to every 911 call here," he cautions. "It's not like the stories on the TV show."

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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