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Officials say 911 misused, 311 not needed yet

March 07, 1997

By LAURA ERNDE

Staff Writer

A cat is stuck in a tree. You return home to find your barbecue grill is missing. You're slicing vegetables and accidentally cut your finger.

To you, any of these situations might be an emergency.

But if you call 911, you would be making a mistake, 911 center directors say, because there is no immediate need for police, fire or ambulance services.

Misuse of 911 is a problem in some parts of the Tri-State area, they say.

But the situation hasn't reached the point that local dispatchers feel they need a new three-digit phone number to handle such calls.

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Federal officials are considering such a number - 311.

The 311 number is being tested in Baltimore with the help of a $350,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant, said Michael Richcrick, president of Technology Management Research, a York, Pa., consultant for 911 services.

The Federal Communications Commission must decide whether to allow 311 and whether it would be an option or a requirement for local governments, Richcrick said.

Nationwide, the abuse of 911 varies widely from county to county. At any given 911 center, 20 percent to 90 percent of the calls are not emergencies, according to Richcrick.

That holds true in the Tri-State area.

In Washington County, about 39 percent of the 56,000 calls to 911 each year are not emergencies, Emergency Services Director Ronald Karn said.

In neighboring Franklin County, Pa., the abuse rate is only about 5 percent, said Jerry Flasher, director of communications.

Jefferson County, W.Va., answers few 911 calls that are not true emergencies, said Emergency Services Director Darrell Penwell. The system does not keep a record of the calls, he said.

The director of 911 for Berkeley County, W.Va., could not be reached for comment. Fulton County, Pa., and Morgan County, W.Va., are in the process of getting 911.

It would be expensive to adopt 311 in the Tri-State area, 911 center directors said.

"The same people who answer 911 are going to have to answer that," Karn said.

And, they said, a massive public education campaign would have to be undertaken to familiarize people with 311.

The same people who can't find the non-emergency numbers would have trouble using 311, they said.

"I don't see a need for it in this particular area. I think it would confuse the population more than anything," Flasher said.

At the Washington County 911 center in the basement of the District Court building on West Washington Street, dispatchers never know what kind of situation they will face when they pick up the phone.

They might have to talk someone through cardiopulmonary resuscitation or send a fire truck to someone's home.

A few times, dispatchers have helped deliver babies over the phone.

But some calls are frivolous.

People call 911 after a snowstorm to ask when a plow will make it to their street. That's a question for road crews, not 911, officials say.

"People call us to tell us the roads are icing up," said Dispatcher Dave Hays.

Then there are people who call to ask for phone numbers because 911 is a free call.

"I use the same phone book that everyone else does," said dispatcher Dave Pheil.

Several calls a day come from people trying to dial a Hagerstown phone number that begins with 791. If they don't press 7 hard enough, the call might end up at 911, Karn said.

Storms create another problem. When basements start to fill with water, the 911 center is flooded with calls, most of which are not emergencies.

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