Calls to 911 cut one-third by 311 system Nonemergency lines ease police response

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 percentage of 911 calls that get put on hold to 4 percent from 18 percent.

Before 311, police said that 911 operator lines were busy 219 hours each month, meaning callers had to wait to get through. In the past two years, that has been reduced to 41 hours a month. Before the change, 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 followup is done to see whether problems are solved. That will change, officials say, when more city agencies get involved in using the number to handle complaints.

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.

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.

Reintzell said strict rules are in place to ensure quality. For example, an officer is reassigned after a 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 as New Zealand visit city police almost weekly to study the system.

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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