THERE IS NO WAY for 911 operators to know the nature of an emergency call to police before they talk to the person calling. As a result, valuable time is often wasted talking to someone who is not in an emergency situation when a person whose life is in danger has been put on hold. Law enforcement officials think they have a solution. Baltimore has been chosen to be the first city in the nation with a "non-emergency" three-digit telephone number for police -- 311.
The success of this innovation will depend on how well the city gets the word out about the new number. If people don't know they have an alternative to dialing 911 when not in an emergency, their behavior won't change. Police also must make sure the citizens who opt to call 311 get results. If prompt attention isn't paid to non-emergencies, people will decide it's pointless to call 311 and drift back to dialing 911 whenever they want to talk to police.
Baltimore police dispatchers answered 1.8 million 911 calls last year; 60 percent of those calls were considered non-emergencies. People call 911 for everything from directions to the ballpark to the removal of double-parked cars. The problem is a national one that has existed almost as long as 911 has been available -- 30 years. That's why U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was in town last week to inaugurate Baltimore's 311 line, which was installed by AT&T; with the help of a $300,000 federal grant.
If the program works here, other cities will follow. The key to making the popular community policing concept work is giving officers more time to both interact with the businesses and people they serve and respond to emergencies. They can't do that when 911 is ringing off the hook. Providing the 311 alternative should eventually allow police to better gauge their time so they can handle all of the tasks the public expects them to perform.
Pub Date: 10/08/96