City to test nonemergency phone number Aim is to preserve overloaded 911 system for true emergencies

1 (800) 379-COPS to debut

Police, AT&T plan for Aug. introduction

public to be educated

July 31, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore has been chosen as a test city for a toll-free nonemergency number that police officials hope will alleviate a beleaguered 911 system and speed up action on true emergencies.

If the pilot program works, the number could be used in other cities to offer residents an alternative way of getting help from local police without tying up lines designed to quickly handle life-threatening situations.

The hard part will be selling the new number -- 1 (800) 379-COPS -- to a public accustomed to dialing 911, and teaching people what constitutes an emergency and what doesn't. Dispatchers across the country complain that many 911 calls are frivolous, as people use the service to get weather reports or directions to ballparks.

Baltimore police and AT&T Corp. plan to launch the initiative at a news conference next month, when they will begin an education campaign complete with refrigerator magnets, billboard posters and ads on the sides of buses.

"The whole idea is to overthrow the tyranny of 911 and get us back in control of our own destiny," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier. Right now, he said, "911 manages the Police Department."

A week ago, President Clinton called for such a number in a speech at a counseling center in Sacramento, Calif., where he said the 911 system is "groaning under the weight of hundreds of thousands of calls a year."

"The 911 system has become a victim of its own success," said Joseph E. Brann, who heads the community policing effort for the U.S. Department of Justice. "With cops going from call to call to call, they aren't able to effectively address the real issues that give rise to crime and social disorder."

Horror stories abound about people put on hold when they call 911 and about delays in emergency response. In Washington, officers are so overwhelmed that it often takes them more than 10 hours to respond to routine burglary calls. In Los Angeles last year, 325,000 emergency calls -- or 14 percent -- were not answered by overwhelmed dispatchers.

The situation hasn't reached such a crisis in Baltimore, where each year 1.8 million 911 calls are made to operators on the fourth floor of downtown police headquarters. Still, city officers often are backed up on calls.

The new number "would make a world of difference," said 911 operator Allison McPhaul, one of 16 communications workers who typically answer a total of 2,500 calls per shift. "A lot of times people call and truly need the police, and we are answering other questions."

More than 50,000 911 calls were handled last year by officers who take reports by telephone instead of responding by car. Frazier said cars will no longer be dispatched for certain types of calls -- such as water in basements or bats in attics. "There's really no law enforcement reason to go," he said.

Frazier said nonemergency calls could be transferred to a district station, where an officer could make an appointment to visit a resident, or to a substation, where a neighborhood service officer could take the time to look into a complaint. Residents who call the new number, which should be operational in time for an Aug. 19 news conference, will reach an operator who can assist the caller -- either by transferring the call to the telephone reporting unit or having a car dispatched on a nonemergency basis.

The important aspect, officials say, is that it takes the call out of the 911 queue, meaning there is less of a chance that someone with a true emergency, such as a shooting, will be put on hold.

Funding for the yearlong program may come from a $300,000 federal grant that Baltimore is seeking. The money will pay for the equipment needed to establish the system. AT&T will pay for upgrading the dispatch center.

John D. Cohen, a former police officer who directs AT&T's judicial and criminal justice division, said the company will pay for the entire program if the grant falls through.

A separate line would help McPhaul, one of Baltimore's 911 operators. Many of the calls she answered during a two-hour period last week could hardly be called life-threatening, yet cars were dispatched in many cases.

"I don't need the police. I just need to report that someone broke into my car," said one caller. "I just wanted to call you for insurance purposes."

One minute later, another man dials 911. "Can I ask you a question?" he says. "If police come to your house, like on a raid, don't they have to have a warrant?"

Later in the evening, a woman calls in a hectic voice. "I was wondering if you could help me. This is probably the wrong number. My friends are driving in from North Carolina and they are three hours late. I was wondering if there were any accidents on the major highways?"

McPhaul transfers the woman to the state police and sighs.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.