NO EMERGENCY Callers flood 911 about barking dogs and, yes, pet cows


A woman called the Baltimore City 911 emergency number during a snowstorm to complain that her toilet wouldn't flush.

Another woman called 911 and requested that a police officer be dispatched to her house to frighten her son into doing his homework.

And a man called to complain that his neighbor was keeping a pet cow in the yard.

When the 911 emergency system was installed in Baltimore in March 1985, police and fire officials thought it would lead to greater efficiency in routing emergency calls. It has turned into a nightmare, they now concede.

Instead of using the system for its intended purpose -- reporting emergencies -- residents are flooding the system with complaints about minor problems such as barking dogs and loud parties.

"You name it and we have answered it," said Sgt. William D. Gordon, of the police communications division.

Sergeant Gordon said the system is often flooded with so many calls that they must be assigned appropriate priorities to ensure that officers are quickly dispatched to emergencies. The department's goal is to dispatch a vehicle to an emergency within four minutes of receiving the call, the sergeant said.

When the 911 system is swamped with calls, minor complaints are "placed on the back burner" and the callers must wait a half-hour or longer to discuss them with 911 personnel, Sergeant Gordon said.

On an average day, the police department has 13 clerks taking 911 emergency calls. There are about 150 patrol cars -- 50 on each shift -- available each day to respond to those calls.

Last year, the clerks answered more than 1.4 million calls and dispatched officers to nearly 850,000 of them, Sergeant Gordon said. About 140,000 of the calls were for fire and ambulance service, he said.

Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods said the problem is not unique to Baltimore, which, like other major cities, is looking for ways to reduce the number of non-emergency calls.

"We have to do something to reduce the number of calls," Mr. Woods said. "Our officers are spending their time just going from one call to another. They don't have time to do anything else."

Mr. Woods said "community-oriented policing" may provide an answer to the problem. Under the concept, officers are assigned to work directly with neighborhood groups to learn about community problems and to refer citizens to the appropriate agencies when they need assistance.

The commissioner said citizens also will be offered an opportunity to work closely with the department for five to six weeks to learn how community policing works. He said he hoped the interaction will result in fewer 911 calls as citizens stop relying on the department to solve all of their problems.

The city hired a consultant, Gaffigan and Associates, to help implement the new concept and to study the department's efficiency. Mr. Woods said a draft of the consultant's report has been completed and will be released once Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has had time to review it.

"This way they can get to the root of the problem and solve it within the community," Mr. Woods said. "We want people to understand what we mean by an emergency call."

Robert Wasserman, of Gaffigan and Associates, told members of a police graduating class Friday that they were taking part in an "exciting" phase of policing that calls for a partnership with the community.

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