There's one problem with government having done such a good job educating people to use 911, says the director of Baltimore County's emergency telephone: People now call it for nearly everything.
Baltimore County's 911 system occasionally gets so clogged by calls from people reporting ordinary inconveniences that some get automatically switched to a recording that requests them to hold the line until an operator gets free, county officials say.
About a dozen calls a month, out of about 45,000, are shifted to the taped message, said John A. Thompson, the county's deputy director of Civil Defense who is temporarily shifted calls have turned out to be dire emergencies.
The reason for the overload is that as many as 60 percent of 911 calls are not true emergencies, County Administrative Officer Frank C. Robey told county department heads this week. He urged them to educate their employees about the real purpose of 911.
The 911 center gets between 1,200 and 2,000 calls a day, and 500,000 to 600,000 a year.
Thompson, who has supervised the center since April, said the 13 operators normally on duty at any given time often have no incoming calls. But without warning, batches of calls can light up the panels all at once, he said.
When it's needed, the taped message normally does not finish playing before a live operator comes on is immediately called back. The tape simply says that the caller has reached 911, but that all operators are temporarily busy.
Typically, he said, "people call to say a story knocked down a tree in their yard, or they woke up in the morning and found their car fender had been dented, or vandals had damaged their property." All those situations should be handled by calling the administrative police number, 887-2120, or county public works, 887-3560, he said.
His operators tell such callers if their calls do not constitute emergencies, then refer them to the proper agency as quickly as possible.
Others call, he said, to find out what county benefits they might be entitled to, how to reach various government agencies, or to report that they are ill and have no one to take them to a hospital.
One event that causes many calls is a severe storm, when power is out in wide areas. "I don't know why people call 911 instead of Baltimore Gas and Electric," Thompson said.
He said 911 does have a general information number, 887-0000, where routine questions about government services can be answered without typing up emergency lines.
Calls to 911 are handled on the average in eight seconds, he said, though larger emergencies sometimes take much longer.
For example, in responding to the fatal shootings by a disgruntled former employee until police officers arrived, Thompson said.
Thompson said 911 operators also will stay on the line if BTC someone calls to report an ongoing emergency, such as a burglar in the hous. They won't hang up until the person says the police are actually in the house and in control of the situation.