Restoring the 911 Lifeline HOWARD COUNTY

June 09, 1993

A well-run 911 emergency telephone service can be a community's lifeline. Just as a drowning man reaches for a rope to rescue him, most citizens know instinctively to pick up the phone and dial 911 when experiencing or witnessing life-threatening calamities.

For more than a year after its September 1991 inception, Howard County's 911 service was anything but well-run. Officials made the initial mistake of routing emergency and non-emergency calls alike to the number. This penny-pinching measure resulted, predictably, in a flood of calls the small staff of operators couldn't handle. Often, callers were unable to get through, such as a woman who thought she was watching a suicide attempt, dialed 911 and repeatedly got a recorded message.

The local government then compounded the problems by waiting until late last year to fix them.

County residents had to feel relieved, then, when John Hampton was hired to direct the $2.1 million Bureau of Central Communications. Selected after a nationwide screening of 187 candidates, Mr. Hampton should bring much-needed professionalism to the agency.

He arrived in Howard County this spring after 22 years with Washington D.C.'s communications center, one of the busiest in the United States. As a top official there -- eventually serving as acting director -- Mr. Hampton gained first-hand knowledge of the emergency communications field. He also helped to upgrade the Washington system with a number of beneficial programs. One of them taught employees how to talk callers through crises until emergency crews got to the scene. Another had phone trainees improving their feel for the job by going out on calls with the crews.

Mr. Hampton will spend some time sizing up the needs of Howard's system before he tries adding the types of wrinkles he introduced in the nation's capital.

While his wishes might run smack into the county's continuing fiscal restraints, officials should take care not to cut corners where a public service as vital as the 911 "lifeline" is concerned.

They played it cheap last time. Look what happened. Now that they've brought in Mr. Hampton, they could look even more foolish if they scrimped again on 911.

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