Calls to 311 ease load on city's 911 lines Noncrisis number is first-year success

September 29, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's three-digit nonemergency number implemented a year ago as part of a national pilot program has eased the city's strained 911 system, police say, enabling them to more quickly help residents in need.

Fewer police cars are being dispatched, freeing officers' time for community policing, and people who call with emergencies are less likely to be put on hold, commanders say.

The 311 system has resulted in a 60 percent decrease in the average time it takes a dispatcher to answer, a 5 percent drop in the number of patrol cars dispatched and a 69 percent decline in the number of people put on hold, according to police statistics.

"The kinds of things we are being dispatched to are the things that we need to go to," said Maj. Timothy Longo, the former head of the communications division who implemented the 311 system and now commands the Southeastern District.

Before 311, Longo said, "We were dispatching cars to too many things. We were very 911-driven. A police officer didn't have discretionary time to identify problems."

Now, Longo said, officers have more time to deal with community problems -- often the very complaints that pour into the 311 line, such as a house suspected of being a haven for drug use or a group of juveniles who hang out on a street corner.

"We are dispatching about 50,000 fewer calls than we did last year," Longo said. "Officers can really sit back and look for root problems on their beat instead of just chasing calls."

The anniversary celebration is scheduled for Wednesday at the Virginia Baker Recreation Center in Patterson Park. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and representatives from the Department of Justice and AT&T Corp. are expected to attend.

Baltimore is the only U.S. city with the nonemergency three-digit number. AT&T established the city's 311 telephone line with a $300,000 federal grant.

John Cohen, director of strategic planning and governmental marketing for AT&T, said major cities, including Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago, want such a number. California has set up a committee to study the subject.

Police departments across the country have struggled with overburdened 911 systems. Many people use 911, established 30 years ago, to make routine inquiries, such as asking for directions or removal of double-parked cars.

A 1996 study found that officers in Washington often took more than 10 hours to respond to burglary calls. In Los Angeles, 325,000 emergency calls -- or 14 percent -- went unanswered by busy dispatchers.

Baltimore police dispatchers answered 1.8 million calls to 911 in 1995 and 1.7 million last year -- the numbers include fire and ambulance calls -- and officials estimate that 60 percent were not emergencies. Police acknowledge that callers in life-threatening situations have been put on hold.

Lt. James E. Buckmaster of the communications division said delays on the 911 lines are few and have been reduced from an average of 6 seconds last year to 2 seconds this year -- a decrease he attributes to the 311 line.

"It had to be extremely frustrating for the citizens," said Lt. Dawn L. Jessa. "If you're shot and lying on your doorstep, you don't want to hear a recording saying, 'Your call is important to us.' "

As of Friday, 595,062 calls had been placed to the 311 line since it went into effect Sept. 30. And 854,507 calls requesting police help were made to 911.

Last Tuesday, for example, 2,808 people called 911. Moreover 1,827 called 311 -- or nearly 40 percent of the total number of calls. About half the 311 calls resulted in a patrol car being sent. Others were handled by dispatchers or referred to district stations for follow-up.

An ideal 311 call, said Officer Max E. Pagelsen, is: "I get up in the morning and see my car window is busted and car phone is missing."

It's not life-threatening; it doesn't require immediate action and a report is taken over the phone, the dispatcher said. Before the 311 line was available, a 911 dispatcher would have sent a car.

Pagelsen said an officer might be sent on 15 to 20 calls during an eight-hour shift, compared with 25 to 30 before 311. Still, he said, the call volume is too high.

"The guys out there are running their butts off," he said. "There is no such thing as preventive patrol. There is no such thing as knowing the people on your post. There is no time. It's a sad state of affairs."

But he and another 311 dispatcher, Officer Paul Loomis, said that without the system, police would be even busier. They said officers are better able now to help solve long-term problems.

"It definitely frees up an officer's time," Loomis said.

The department launched a public relations campaign last year to teach the public about the new number and when to call, using posters such as "You've been listening to a bass riff in surround sound. But you don't own a stereo. Call 311 -- when there's urgency but no emergency."

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