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Non-emergency calls clogging 911 lines; is 311 the answer?

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  • Non-emergency calls clogging 911 lines; is 311 the answer?

    Non-emergency calls clogging 911 lines; is 311 the answer?


    Staff writer

    The phone rings, the console lights up, and the dispatcher mentally readies to handle disaster.

    "Nine-one-one. What's your emergency?"

    "Yes, I was wondering what time the July 4 fireworks start?"

    It's a scenario that plays out day after day, year after year, in police and fire dispatch centers across the North Shore. Telephone lines earmarked for 911 emergency calls are abused by residents looking to report non-life threatening incidents, barking dogs, potholes and abandoned cars, or to ask questions about town and city events -- whether school has been canceled for bad weather, or where the fireworks are being shot off.

    Enter the concept of "311."

    A 311 non-emergency telephone system is gaining popularity across the country and is in use in more than a dozen major cities, including New York, Chicago, Miami, San Antonio and Las Vegas. Recently, a 311 system was put into place by the Dukes County Sheriff's Department on Martha's Vineyard, where a 2002 study revealed that 60 percent of its 911 calls were not emergencies -- possibly due to the influx of tourists in spring and summer.

    Here on the North Shore, law enforcement officials agree the concept of 311 is an excellent idea. But they doubt the systems will be used here anytime in the near future, pointing to dwindling budgets and manpower.

    "We have no immediate plans to implement the 311 system," Beverly Police Chief John Cassola said. "And if we did, we'd need to research the issue thoroughly."

    Salem Police Chief Robert St. Pierre said the 311 system is an innovative and forward-thinking tool for police departments today. However, his department this year faced layoffs and cutbacks due to budget belt tightening.

    Is 311 on SPD's radar screen?

    "Unfortunately, not right now. That's new technology we'd need to pay for. And right now, we're not in any position to invest in new technology," St. Pierre said. "It's definitely something worth exploring in the future, but right now we've got all we can do to keep our heads above water and hold onto our personnel."

    Baltimore was the first city to use the 311 system, installing it in 1996. According to Baltimore's report to the U.S. Justice Department, by 2000 the average time for answering 911 calls was down 50 percent, and there were considerable drops in both the time dispatchers spent on calls and the number of 911 calls getting a recorded message due to busy lines.

    Those results spurred the federal government to provide money to some police departments to install 311 systems. Since 1996, the U.S. Department of Justice has awarded $5.5 million in 311 grants, including $500,000 to Framingham, which is adding the line. On Martha's Vineyard, the Dukes County Sheriff's Department used $30,000 for a multipurpose community policing grant.

    Across the region, police departments report receiving thousands of 911 calls per year. In Danvers, for example, close to 1,400 911 calls have come in to the Police Department already in 2003, according to a report. But fewer than half of those calls turned out to be genuine emergencies.

    "I would estimate that 650 calls represented authentic emergencies," Christopher Bruce, Danvers police crime analysis statistician, wrote in the June 24 report. Most of the "bogus" 911 calls were hang-ups, reports of suspicious activity, disputes, well-being checks and noise complaints.

    While 311 may not become a reality on the North Shore for some time, public safety officials remind residents why 911 lines were established.

    "Dial 911 to save a life, report a fire, stop a crime," said Nancy Luther of Topsfield, who heads the Governor's Highway Safety Bureau.

    "We need to better educate people on what 911 is for -- emergencies. Not to ask what day is trash pickup."

    Staff writer Chris Markuns contributed to this report.

  • #2
    What would 311 be used for?


    Staff writer

    Dialing 911 will get you immediate help in an emergency. Non-emergency calls should not go to 911, and that's why some communities -- though none on the North Shore -- have started a 311 system.

    Examples of non-emergency calls include:

    Animal disturbances


    Loud noise complaints

    Abandoned cars

    Parking complaints

    Garbage pile-ups

    Water leaks

    Open hydrants


    Street-light outages

    Street closure inquiries

    Stolen property reports


    • #3

      I suppose a new number could help solve the problem.

      But how about educating the public first on using the 7 digit admin number that every dispatch, police department, fire department or EMS provider has? Wouldn't local ad campiagns cost less in the long run educating people about the existing number over creating a new number and then having to advertise and educate about it?

      I suppose though the biggest merit of 311 is once people realize that that number is operational and viable people don't have to get off their lazy behinds and look up a phone number.

      I just shake my head remembering the stupid calls I used to get on 911 when I worked as a dispatcher.

      Crazy, but that's how it goes
      Millions of people living as foes
      Maybe it's not too late
      To learn how to love, and forget how to hate


      • #4
        Surprisingly around here for true emergencies people dont call 911 they either call the firehouse number or dispatch's non-emergency number. so we have to tell them to hang up and call 911.


        • #5
          A lot of people are misinformed about what 9-1-1 can do, and what 9-1-1 cannot do. I also think that the 7-digit phone numbers are difficult to find in the phone book. Specifically in New York State, where you have not just the State Police, County Sheriff's Office and a municipal Police Department, I find that the numbers are scattered throughout the phone book. Most of the police department's phone numbers are located in the government section of the book, and all of the major law enforcement numbers (SP,SO,FBI etc)are located up front, with a big 9-1-1 for all emergencies. I carefully explain to callers what 9-1-1 is used for. Even after explaining in full detail, some just don't get it. An example of some of the most ridiculous calls I have received:
          1) What time is it?
          2) When does the bus get to #$%^& Street?
          3) When does the parade start?
          4) Directions
          5) Police reports, inmate inquiries, telephone repairs, bill discrepancies, Taxi rides etc.

          3-1-1 would work in larger cities, but in smaller towns it is just as simple as looking it up in the phone book (now if I can find that stinking number in the blue page section...).


          • #6
            If we had 311... I'm sure half of our 911 calls would be folks asking, "what's the other number?" Because whenever I'm sitting in dispatch, at least one person calls 911 to ask what the non-emergency number is.

            I guess that's good... That means we've taught them that 911 is for emergencies. Now, if we could only teach them how to not be lazy.


            • #7
              while the 311 system is innovative, will it really help? the only way i see it being as beneficial as it was intended is if departments hire a 2nd dispatcher or a assign a 2nd person to just handle 311 calls. after all, noise complaints and loitering often requires a police response, and as such, a dispatcher should be taking the call. it's not an emergency, but it does get a police unit to respond.

              if they don't hire another person, then the 911 dispatcher will get the call. and if the caller can't get through on 311, anyone want to make a bet on what number they will be calling next?

              it's a nice concept, and it may stop the non-emergency 911 calls, but i don't think it will actually make a difference in dispatcher efficiancy.
              If my basic HazMat training has taught me nothing else, it's that if you see a glowing green monkey running away from something, follow that monkey!



              • #8
                People call 911 (or 999 as it is over here) for one reason. Its Free.

                I'm an emergency services dispatcher and 90% of calls we get are non emergency, but people use the 999 number all the time as its free, even though we advertise our non emergency number on the sides of buses and in newspapers etc. The non emergency no is'nt a free call, so people won'nt use it. Also, how long has 911 been going? Years. People won't change their habits.
                United Kingdom branch, IACOJ.


                • #9
                  Originally posted by martinm
                  People call 911 (or 999 as it is over here) for one reason. Its Free... The non emergency no is'nt a free call, so people won'nt use it. Also, how long has 911 been going? Years. People won't change their habits.
                  If you charge people to call your non-emergency line, you can't honestly be suprised or bothered by the fact that people call the emergency number.


                  • #10
                    Coz, we don't charge people to ring us. Theire phone company does that.

                    We did investigate the feasibility of providing a freephone non emergency number, but market research etc indicated that trying to educate the public into using it would cost much, much more than simply providing a line, (and the people to answer it). Whilst we gripe all day and night about the "missuse" of the emergency number, we are now, after about 60/70 years of using a number which is intantaneously recognisable, stuck with it. You have to bear in mind that to the person on the end of the phone, whatever has happened to them is in their eyes and emergency, even if we have heard the same story over and over again.
                    United Kingdom branch, IACOJ.


                    • #11
                      The concept is nice. But I think if the public can't figure out one 3 digit number, I really do not expect them to figure out TWO of them. Finding out the seven digit numbers and WRITING THEM DOWN SOMEWHERE is not difficult. If people would just do it, the problem would be solved.
                      Even the burger-flippers at McDonald's probably have some McWackers.


                      • #12
                        911 TO 311

                        From a strictly fire/police/ems perspective, perhaps that would be a good move; it might help alleviate some of the non-emergency calls in, however... there was this detour called Emergency Coast Guard calling.... aka *311.

                        I am not entirely sure about this next bit, but I did confer with my Canadian Coast Guard buddies in the Operations Room: In the British Columbia Search and Rescue Region (confirmed) we use *311 on your cell phone to make emergency SAR calls. I asked if this also applied to our southern neighbours in Washington State... but alas the phones began to ring on all stations so all the Controllers are tied up right now. So my end point here is that 311 or the various derivitives, *311 etc may not be available in all areas, AND it may cause confusion for some.

                        I do agree that non-emergency numbers should be employed, and for sure they should be better listed in the phone book than the way they are, at least locally anyway.

                        ** OK just checked with the Major.... *311 is strictly a BC inovation and is for a toll-free cellular usage call to reach the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Victoria (that's me), who in turn will alert the necessary SAR resources to attend. Something else the Maj passed to me was that a couple of years ago he attended a briefing that included *311 and 911 as primary topics. The point was an effort to decrease response times for Emergency Crews, by having each of the services, fire, police, ems etc have their own special calling code. The concept apparently had been trialed, but it was found that in almost all cases, when the "mud" hits the fan", in an excited state, people don't remember the specific codes, but they all remember "911" or "999" as your country/continent is configured.**
                        If you don't do it RIGHT today, when will you have time to do it over? (Hall of Fame basketball player/coach John Wooden)

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                        Get it up. Get it on. Get it done!

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                        • #13
                          Perhaps the best alternative is for phone book publishers to include non-emergency numbers inside the front cover along with that big bold "911" next to the words "fire, police, ambulance."

                          I know that it's a pain to try to locate non-emergency numbers *inside* my phone books. There are multiple cities included in the directory and the organization of numbers varies from city to city.


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