City Council wants 911 operations brought back under Police Department

Citing harrowing constituent stories of dropped calls and busy signals during emergencies, members of the Baltimore City Council called on the Rawlings-Blake administration Monday to return the handling of 911 calls to the Police Department.

Councilman Nick J. Mosby and Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said the city's 911 service has become largely unreliable since it was moved to the mayor's information technology office several years ago as a cost-saving measure.

"How do you reach help if 911 is busy?" Clarke said. "There's no question that it has to be changed, and it has to be changed ASAP. That's why I'm so charged up about this issue. We're just hearing one story after another from our constituents — nightmare stories — about trying to get through" to 911 operators without success.

Mosby said the change would make the Police Department more accountable for its own response to 911 calls. "Whether you're a witness to a crime or a victim of a crime, it's paramount that you have direct access to the police," he said.

The two drafted a resolution, unanimously backed by the council Monday, that criticizes the city's decision to move 911 operations to save money. The change stripped operators and dispatchers of benefits afforded to Police Department employees, including "flexible leave benefits which traditionally permitted timely days off to recover from extended periods of stressful call center and dispatch services." After the move, the resolution states, "many 911 professionals retired or transferred to other subdivisions, leaving a shortage of seasoned personnel and a blow to 911's traditional esprit de corps."

The city's centralized call center in the Mayor's Office of Information Technology handles thousands of emergency 911 calls and nonemergency 311 calls each night. The city has said the combined structure creates efficiencies.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the mayor "recognizes there have been some issues with 911" in recent months, but that they are related to a roughly 20 percent increase in 911 calls this summer compared to last. Spokesman Howard Libit said the city is in the process of training about 10 new operators who should begin work by November to "help alleviate some of the staff pressures" amid a spike in homicides and robberies.

"We're having conversations about improving service," he said, "but we're not at a point yet where any decision has been made."

Gene Ryan, president of the local police union, said through a spokeswoman that the 911 dispatchers and operators are not sworn members of the union, and referred questions to the department. The Police Department referred questions to the mayor's office. The City Union of Baltimore, which represents nonpolice city employees, did not respond to a request for comment.

Rick Hoffman, president of the local firefighters union, said fire and EMS responses have also suffered since being shifted to the mayor's information technology office several years ago. The Fire Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Mosby and Clarke said they have mostly heard concerns about police response but would be interested in hearing more about fire-related problems.

David Tohn of Charles Village said he called 911 late last month after witnessing a man get knocked out during a fight in the Wyman Park Dell, but hung up after eight rings with no answer. A dispatcher called him back 10 minutes later, he said, but by then the fight was over.

"The one time I chose to use 911, it didn't work," he said. "Now I know I need to plan my emergencies at least 10 minutes in advance."

Tohn, 49, said he believes in Baltimore's future and knows the city is addressing a number of pressing issues at the moment, but a reliable 911 system should be a top priority.

Melissa Lavoie, a 25-year-old medical student who lives in East Baltimore, said she came across an unresponsive man this summer, called 911 and talked to a dispatcher — but then waited for 20 minutes without any help arriving.

"I was floored," Lavoie said. "It really undermined my sense of security in Baltimore. I felt like I really couldn't count on the city or the government, and neither could anyone else."

According to an audit of the city's 911 system for the fiscal year ending June 2014, the city collected about $4.6 million through the state-required 911 surcharge fee, which telecommunications companies collect from telephone users across the state as part of their normal billing process to fund 911 service. However, expenses for the year were about $7.3 million, including more than $633,000 in overtime payments for dispatchers and staff, so the city had to spend more than $2.6 million in general funds to cover its 911 costs.

The year before, the city received about $3.7 million from the surcharge and spent about $6.8 million on the service.

Mosby also introduced a second resolution calling for an investigative hearing for officials in the Mayor's Office of Information Technology to appear before the council "to explain the connection problems and busy signals" and provide statistics on 911 performance in recent years.

Both resolutions were assigned to the council's public safety committee for additional review.

krector@baltsun.com

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