All signs point to confusion at park

City can't quickly fix problems it struggles to locate, visitors say

June 12, 2006|By CHRIS YAKAITIS | CHRIS YAKAITIS,SUN REPORTER

When Leslie Miller spotted three 8-foot-long swaths of graffiti on the Herring Run Park bike path last month, she wanted them removed as quickly as possible.

When she tried to use the information on a park marker to tell the city about the problem, she got more frustrated.

An Internet site set up to notify authorities wouldn't accept "Hooper's Field" as a valid street address. When she spoke with an operator at the city's 311 nonemergency call center, she had to launch into a convoluted story to pinpoint the location of the defacing. Park visitors are encouraged to use the names on the signs when dialing 911 or 311.

Three weeks later, the white, yellow and blue scrawls on the asphalt remained.

"It seems to me that the first thing you'd do is train people how to deal with the signs as street addresses," Miller said. "It still doesn't work. Everyone's in agreement that this is wrong and ridiculous."

Though the graffiti was finally removed last week, Miller's complaint cuts to a larger issue for both emergency and nonemergency workers: the ability to respond to calls about city parks and other large, open spaces that have one official address but can be spread over hundreds of acres.

The official address for Herring Run Park is 3700 Harford Road, though the wooded strip of land winds across Northeast Baltimore from Lake Montebello to the eastern edge of the city, encompassing 300 acres.

"That is a severe problem when it comes to getting responsiveness," said Connie A. Brown, director of the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks. "We are trying to use [the signs] and a GIS [geographic indicator system] in order to pinpoint locations and develop a grid system for the park."

The Herring Run Watershed Association, a largely volunteer group that directs safety and conservation projects, installed the park signs in March 2004 as one approach to solving the problem. With names such as "Deep Forest" and "Orlinsky Grove," the 14 signs stand along the paved bike path and are intended to define areas within the park.

City police worked with the association to secure a $25,000 federal grant for the project. The police dispatch system has since been keyed so that each sign name corresponds to a street address, enabling a quick and accurate response for police, firefighters and emergency workers, said Maj. Wesley Wise, director of communications for 911 and dispatch.

But residents who use Herring Run said efforts to incorporate that data into the city's 311 computer system have been less successful.

The 311 Internet site does not accept the sign names in its online request form, which asks for a street number or intersection. People like Miller, who have tried to reference the signs on 311 calls, said they often encounter confused operators.

Even when the 311 operator understands the request and location, public works employees sent to correct the problem might still get lost; many don't have a map or key explaining how the signs work, park visitors said.

Last year Bob Mayes, one of Miller's neighbors in Arcadia and an association volunteer, tried to report a manhole cover that had blown off a sewage stack in the park during a storm. The city worker couldn't find it, Mayes said, and he had to lead him to the spot. "When I showed him the map with all the signs marked on it, he said, `I've never seen this map before.'"

As recently as last week, Mayes said he met a city worker assigned to remove graffiti and "literally took her by the hand, almost" to the offending scrawls.

Mayes said that servicing the park shouldn't be complicated. "That was the whole purpose of the signs we put up," he said. "It's just been a struggle since the signs were activated to get the word out to everyone."

Darin Crew, a watershed restoration manager for the Herring Run group, said the sign system needs to be communicated to all city agencies, and deemed reliable, before it is replicated in other city parks. "If [the operator] says, `I don't know where ... Fox Den is,' it's going to frustrate the caller," he said.

Brown acknowledged "room for improvement and clarification" in how the 311 system and its operators use the information on the signs. He said the issue came up at the most recent CitiStat meeting.

Lisa Allen, a call center manager for 311, said agents have been trained to handle park requests using the signs and are instructed to take descriptive notes from callers to help locate problems.

"If 911 has a better way of doing things that can help with people on the telephone, we'd like to know about it," she said. "We have to look at both systems."

chris.yakaitis@baltsun.com

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