Nonemergency line reduces calls to 911 Baltimore's 311 system marks 2 years today

October 02, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's two-year experiment with a nonemergency number has reduced 911 police calls by more than one-third, easing a strained system that sometimes kept callers waiting for help.

Officials want to expand the system to tie other city agencies into the 311 line so citizens can dial one number and get help for a variety of problems, from downed tree limbs to plugged storm drains.

"This 311 system has reversed a disturbing trend in law enforcement," said Maj. John F. Reintzell, who runs the department's communications division. "It is the first valuable means of stemming the flow of chronically increasing 911 usage, much of which is non-emergency."

More importantly, police say, 311 has freed officers to help prevent crime.

"Officers were going back and forth between calls," Reintzell said.

"You can't do meaningful policing if you are handling 24 calls a night. You can't prevent much."

Of the 3.3 million calls made to the police dispatch system since it began two years ago today, 1.2 million were handled by 311 operators, or about 36 percent.

That has helped reduce the number of 911 calls that get put on hold from 18 percent to 4 percent.

Before 311, police said callers to 911 received a busy signal 219 hours each month.

In the past two years, that has been reduced to 41 hours a month.

Before the changeover, it took operators an average of 6 seconds to answer a 911 call; now it is 2 seconds.

Problems remain to be worked out, however. Many 311 calls are turned over to district station houses or city-run neighborhood centers, but police admit that little follow-up is done to see whether the problems are solved. That will change, officials say, when more city agencies get involved in using the number to solve complaints.

And a disturbing number of calls to 311 are abandoned. Police said 23 percent of the callers hung up before the phone was answered. Many people, officials believe, called back on the 911 emergency line to get a quicker response.

But Reintzell said the people who do get through on 311 are pleased. Of 5,300 callers surveyed, he said, 5,254 -- or 99 percent -- reported being satisfied with the service.

Sandra Saunders, who lives in East Baltimore and is a liaison between community associations and the police, said she likes the new number.

"Some people say they get help quicker when they call 311 than when they dial 911," she said.

But Dennis Mason Sr., who lives in South Baltimore, complained about 311 at a community meeting last week. He said he called the line repeatedly about illegally parked cars blocking driveways and sidewalks near new bars on Key Highway.

"I called 311, and they told me there is no parking patrol in my neighborhood," Mason said. "They wouldn't send out the police. I called them on more than one occasion, but they won't send officers out to give tickets."

Some officers have complained that their colleagues who answer the 311 calls do not take their jobs seriously, leave early and ignore the phone. Most officers assigned to 311 are there because of disciplinary problems or injuries.

Reintzell said strict rules are in place to ensure quality. For example, an officer is reassigned after the second sustained rudeness complaint. "If you don't want to be here, we will find other work for you," he said. "I want people who want to be here."

In October 1996, Baltimore became the first city in the nation to get 311 service. It is now offered in Dallas, Chicago and San Jose, Calif., and visitors from as far away as New Zealand visit city police almost weekly to study the system.

Police departments across the country have struggled with overburdened 911 systems. In 1996 in Los Angeles, 325,000 emergency calls, or 14 percent, went unanswered by busy dispatchers. That year in Washington, officers often took more than 10 hours to respond to burglary calls.

The District of Columbia's inspector general's report in June found that in the first five months of this year, 50,000 emergency calls in the district were unanswered for 16 seconds, and 32,000 people hung up before their calls were answered.

Baltimore, trying to avoid similar problems, paid for the 311 line with a $349,000 grant from the Department of Justice community policing program. AT&T Corp. added $1.3 million and continues to pay for every call. Baltimore pays the salaries of staffers. Much of the initial money was spent on a new computer; it costs about $240,000 a year to maintain the line.

TC "To the extent that the 311 line reduces the workload for officers on the street," Reintzell said, "it has made us a better Police Department."

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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