Police plan 311 as 911 alternative Service to begin Oct. 1 for nonemergency calls

August 30, 1996|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police are setting up a 311 nonemergency number for citizens to call rather than 911, which they say has been overloaded by calls reporting nonlife-threatening incidents -- including bats in attics and double-parked cars.

"About 60 percent of the 911 calls we get are truly non-emergency calls," said Maj. Timothy Longo, the head of the city police communications division. "You don't have to call 911 to report a cat in a tree, a bat in a belfry or people loitering on the corner."

The number goes into service Oct. 1. Federal officials are viewing Baltimore's 311 system as a test case for a pilot program that they hope will set up toll-free nonemergency numbers around the country.

In July, President Clinton called for a nonemergency number system, saying that the 911 system is "groaning under the weight of hundreds of thousands of calls a year." The Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission have been working on the project.

Funding for the 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. In July, an AT&T official said the company will pay for the entire program if the grant falls through.

Baltimore police initially planned to use 1 (800) 379-COPS as their toll-free number. But the number would have been difficult for people to remember and would have placed residents who don't have telephones at a disadvantage, Longo said.

"A lot of folks in this city don't have the privilege of a phone in their home. They use phone booths, and not all phone booths have phone directories," Longo said. "With 311, the number is easily identifiable. People will remember it like they remember 911."

Information campaign set

Police and AT&T Corp. soon will start an education campaign with refrigerator magnets, billboard posters and ads on the sides of buses that will encourage people to use the 311 line.

Each year about 1.8 million 911 calls are made to operators on the fourth floor of downtown police headquarters. If operators become bogged down with too many calls, police say the worst case can occur -- a person needing help dials 911 and gets a recording saying that all operators are busy.

All 311 calls will be handled by limited-duty police officers who will route the calls to appropriate personnel. For instance, a call about an open fire hydrant would be routed to the Department of Public Works.

'Get the message out'

Candace Humphrey, an AT&T spokeswoman, said the phone company is optimistic that the 311 system will become common.

"We want to get the message out to people so the number will stick in their minds," Humphrey said.

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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