Answering the call on the 311 beat

Work the phones here long enough, and you learn that every call is urgent, even if it's just routine. BALTIMORE ... OR LESS

June 27, 1999|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN STAFF

His wristwatch is mounted at eye- level on the telephone console. It tells Baltimore Police Officer Floyd Myers he's got two more hours of calls to field as a 311 operator for the department's communications division.

While he awaits the next caller -- maybe a commuter broken down on the Beltway, maybe a regular like Charlie, the paranoid psychic -- he can talk about working 311, his beat for the past three years.

Three years ago the city became the first in the country to institute the 311 line, a number for non-emergency calls that has handled 1.5 million calls so far, and reduced calls to the emergency 911 line by about a third. Police say it's meant 911 calls are answered faster and more officers freed to handle serious criminal complaints.

"My job is to save a car from going out on a nuisance call," says Myers. "But you can't tell the caller that, because to them it's the most important call in the world."

On this Friday, Myers is stationed at one of the eight 311 consoles in the communications room, fourth floor, Baltimore City police headquarters. The 911 and 311 operators share the communications bunker, its oscillating fans and the adjoining break room with vending machines and TV. This afternoon's showing is "Wheel of Fortune."

"If you can stand the heat ..." Myers says when introduced to his console guest for the next two hours. A headset is provided. His wristwatch keeps time as the calls beep in.

I need to report a theft ...

Is there a number for the women's shelter ...

Then the headset speaks again. I'm having a problem and I really don't know what to do. My husband is acting very erratic. He's threatening to kill the dog.

"I've done that before," Myers tells the caller, who is not soothed. Myers: "Are you afraid of him?" Behind the woman's nervous voice is the sound of a man shouting at her. "He's there, I take it," Myers says. He presses the issue by asking for the woman's address.

I don't want to tell you. The caller hesitates, doesn't know what to do or say at this stage. Myers tells her she can do something. She can go to 501 E. Fayette and get an ex parte order from a district judge to temporarily remove her husband from the house. There will be a hearing.

"You never say there's nothing you can do about it," Myers says, after the caller is logged in and gone. Who knows what will happen to her? Another call is waiting.

Would you send a police officer? Kids are shooting off firecrackers at a dog. Myers two-finger types in the complaint, which is shipped to police dispatch, which sends an officer out to inquire.

A fat operator's manual sits on the console. This 311 bible holds phone numbers to every conceivable city agency, including some that Myers, in 25 years of police work, never knew existed. Who knew there was a number to call to get graffiti cleaned off your house? Want car-pooling information? Call 311. Who knew Animal Control knows bee collectors who will take pesky bees off your hands?

I don't know if I called the right number. ... There's a fox in our neighborhood. The kids are excited.

"Yeah, but don't let them get close to it," Myers tells the caller. He takes his black Bic pen and nudges the speed dial number for Animal Control.

Eight hours a day behind a console (starting at 5:30 a.m.) hasn't offered much in the way of career thrills.

"It's a nice job, though. You don't get rained on," says Myers, 55. "Nobody hollers at you -- if they do, you just hang up on them."

What lands a veteran police officer here? In Myers' case, he had suffered a heart attack and mild stroke, ending his career with the K-9 Unit. Given his limited options, he accepted the 311 assignment.

"I thought, This is going to be a snap after 22 years on the street," he says, momentarily flicking the NR (not ready) button to halt incoming calls. "But there was something about not having a face to talk to. I kept trying to picture what they look like."

Troubled, excited, agitated people would call him -- sometimes 100 a day -- and want his help. He felt stumped. "Just like you feel when you first go out on the street." But soon enough, Myers got his street smarts back. He learned what questions to ask -- or not.

Telephonic triage, it turned out, is police work too.

Can I tell you the whole story? a caller asks.

"Sure."

There's a 17-year-old boy ... and he's a little slow. There's a 9-year-old girl who says he molested her. His mother put him out. He's sitting in our house now. They never took the girl to the hospital.

"OK."

Then these other boys took Ricky house to house, beating him up. As a joke. He's sitting here now, all messed up.

"We'll send a car out."

Most calls are routine, Myers says. An open hydrant. Deer strolling on Falls Roads. A homeless person urinating on the steps of a Fells Point business. My kid won't go to school, parents report to 311. Folks want drug corners cleared. Others call to report a stolen car and are shocked to learn it was repossessed.

And there are regulars. A psychic named Charlie calls to report he's being threatened telepathically. A woman at a nursing home calls to say "they" keep stealing her $10 every month. "She used to call 911," Myers says, smiling. Now she calls him. "She's old -- what the heck."

Myers' shift is nearly over. It's been kind of slow. Then the head-set speaks one more time.

Hello, do you currently have a long-distance carrier? I'm calling from MCI WorldCom and can offer you 10 free, complimentary calling cards.

"This is a non-emergency line for the Baltimore City Police Department," Myers replies. But not even Baltimore's finest can deter a phone solicitor in the line of duty.

We can offer no monthly fees ... do you have a carrier?

Smiling under his headset, Myers does what anyone would do in his situation. He reaches for his Bic pen, aims, then transfers the call to a supervisor.

"Am I bad? I'm bad!" Myers says, loving his job, or, at the least, loving the moment.

Pub Date: 06/27/99

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