Hot line callers get poor reception

Recorded voice answers emergency number

Officials pledge action

February 14, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The tax bill that every county property owner receives contains a packet with the number of a hot line to call for information on what to do in case of an emergency. But when that number was dialed this week, as authorities warned of a potential terrorist attack, callers heard a recording outlining evacuation procedures and a suggestion to call another number for more information.

That phone just rang and rang.

Told that no one was answering the hot line, county officials say they are taking steps to resolve the problem.

"I guess we just overlooked this," said George Thomas, Carroll's assistant director of emergency management. "We have a meeting next week to see how to address this problem and make the service more effective."

The county installed the hot line with exchanges for Eldersburg (410-795-1717) and Westminster (410-857-1818) about a decade ago. A recording instructed callers to dial 911 in the event of a fire, police or health emergency. Otherwise, callers received brief details on evacuation procedures, disaster response and how to stock an emergency supply kit.

The number given to call for additional information rang in a county office that closed in mid-December. From then until this week, the calls apparently went unanswered.

The calls are being forwarded temporarily to the information desk in the lobby of the County Office Building where the receptionist directs them to the appropriate staff during business hours. Evenings and weekends, calls are unanswered but emergency management staff is working to resolve the problem.

While officials acknowledge that the hot line has not been adequately publicized, its use has increased recently.

"As the federal government changed the terrorism alert level, people have started calling the numbers again," said Howard S. Redman, Carroll's public safety director.

He plans to track the number of calls through phone records, but predicts the count will be low.

"Even if we get 10 calls a month, the service is still worthwhile," he added.

Angela Lee of Eldersburg, who has called the number with the South Carroll exchange periodically, asked, "What good is an emergency number, if only a handful of people even know such a thing exists?"

"I called regularly, more out of curiosity, and heard the same messages repeated," she said. "The phone number at the end is relatively recent. I have called that often, too, but I never got an answer."

The line is only to be staffed during an emergency, and that's never happened, Redman said.

The hot line was established to provide information through recorded messages. A rotating series of messages ran on the lines, depending on the season and the weather.

"We set them up to give the appropriate information on a hurricane or a blizzard or what to do if you have to evacuate," Thomas said.

The messages said families should pack two emergency kits - one for the car and the other by the front door - and recommended the contents. One message in the series detailed the response to a hazardous chemical spill with instructions to cover windows and doors with plastic wrap and duct tape.

"That message would carry over to the terrorism era," said Thomas.

For the past several months, a generic message on evacuation procedures has run.

Those who stayed on the line heard: "If an evacuation is required, follow these guidelines immediately. Remain calm."

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