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If you live in Hampstead, Manchester or Sykesville, and a burglar istrying to break into your house at night and you call your town police -- you won't reach a human being.

What you'll get instead is a recording -- an answering machine telling you to call 911 or the state police at 848-3111. The state police dispatch town officers during dispatchers' off-hours. And during times when no municipal officers are on duty at all, state police have an informal agreement to respond.

The reason you reach a machine is that the three towns do not have a dispatcher on duty 24 hours a day to answer calls. Westminster and the Sheriff's Department have personnel on duty round the clock, asdo the state police.

So, at a time when you're already quite nervous and agitated, if you called police in one of those three towns torace to your aid, you'd have to hang up and dial another number -- further delaying assistance.

That situation is unacceptable. When someone calls police at a late hour, he or she undoubtedly is in need of immediate help. Getting a mechanical "no one is available at this time" answer only aggravates an already tense situation.

Clearly, no one should call police and not get an answer.

Ironically, an inexpensive solution to this situation has been available for some time-- call-forwarding.

For approximately $60 a year (plus a small, one-time installation fee), the phone company will provide this service, which would forward off-hour calls to the state police without missing a beat.

Currently, Taneytown is the only municipal police department with call-forwarding.

Of the three towns without their ownpolice departments, Mount Airy does have an office for its resident state troopers and uses call-forwarding as well.

Some of you may ask why people simply don't call 911 automatically.

Quite frankly, many people are used to calling their local police.

That's especially the case with longtime residents who got into the habit of calling their town police before 911 existed.

Some people also think of 911 as more for fire and medical emergencies, as opposed to a place to call if a prowler is spotted.

And, often, people simply are nervous and don't think to call the state police.

Sykesville Police Chief Wallace P. Mitchell said his town hasn't gotten call-forwarding "because a lot of people just call wanting information or to contact somebody. You get a lot of nuisance calls, so that's why we just use the recording, which is checked periodically."

But the point here is to provide the most immediate human contact possible for emergencies -- when a delay of even a minute or two can literally be a lifetime.

I strongly urge officials in Hampstead, Manchester and Sykesville to follow the lead of their counterparts in Taneytown and install call-forwarding.

Isn't that peace of mind worth the $60?

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