"This Is 911 ... Please Hold"
In a dismal subterranean pressure cooker four floors beneath Los Angeles's City Hall East, "police service representatives" bathed in muted blue neon hues clack on keyboards, their headsets plugged into the torrent of 911 calls that echo the panic and mayhem of Los Angeles. From a phone booth, a panicked caller is screaming that somebody has just been shooting at him. "OK, where's the man with the gun now, sir?" asks dispatcher Martin Ford matter-of-factly as the location of the phone booth pops up on his computer screen. "OK, the guy that had the gun, was he black or white or Hispanic? Do you know what he's wearing? OK, what's the license plate again?" Almost before the caller hangs up, Ford has typed the relevant information into the computer and pushed a button to assign the call to an available police car. Next up: a woman who fears an intruder is still in her house. Across the country in Baltimore's 911 center, another mostly windowless room with false ceilings and a few splashes of cafeteria-blue paint, dispatchers' consoles are spitting out rows of red numbers and new "jobs" to be assigned to the cops on the streets. A fight. A shoplifting suspect. Eighteen junkies in an alley with a drug dealer. A man bothering a woman. An elderly lady needs her pills. 3933 Kimble Road. 5706 Fenwick Avenue. 1403 Kingsway Road. 1700 E. Northern Parkway. In Los Angeles, in Baltimore, in Chicago and Buffalo, in your town and mine, the numbers keep coming and the lights never stop blinking. Police executives call it the "tyranny of 911"--the relentless drumbeat of calls that sends cops bouncing all over town like so many pinballs (box, Page 33). The creation of 911 seemed like a good idea, and it regularly works in heroic fashion. But life-threatening situations do not always get the prompt attention they deserve because frivolous 911 calls send police off on unnecessary runs. And the sheer volume of calls sometimes overwhelms 911 operators and phone lines, meaning some desperate callers get a recording or are put on hold. During a Dallas storm last spring, hundreds of callers had to wait for more than 90 seconds. And in Los Angeles last year, 325,261 calls--13.5 percent of the total--were abandoned by callers before 911 operators could answer. The vast majority of 911 calls are handled efficiently and courteously, but recent years have seen more than enough horror stories to cause concern. Perhaps the most infamous occurred in November 1994 in Philadelphia, where a fast-moving fight among rival groups of teens eventually led to the baseball-bat beating death of 16-year-old Eddie Polec (box, Page 36). Getting in the way. Worse yet, the public has become so addicted to 911 that cops have time for little else, especially the sort of crime prevention and analysis that might actually be more effective in fighting crime. "We have created a monster," is the police chiefs' refrain. "So long as 911 persists in its present form, policing cannot move forward," write Northeastern University criminal justice Prof. George Kelling and lawyer Catherine Coles in their forthcoming book, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. Like so many other problems, 911 started out as a solution. In 1967, the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended that "a single number should be established" nationwide for reporting emergencies. AT&T soon announced its choice of 911, and the first 911 call was made in Haleyville, Ala., in February 1968. Today, some 85 percent of the population is covered by 911. The number of 911 calls started growing in the 1970s and has mushroomed to an estimated 268,000 a day. About 80 to 85 percent of them summon the cops, though ambulances and fire departments use the system as well. Total calls to Columbus, Ohio's system jumped from 222,000 during July 1987-June 1988 to 310,000 in 1994-95. In New York City, the number of 911 calls is expected to grow to 12.5 million by 2005. The sheer volume of calls isn't the only problem, however. An ever increasing percentage of 911 calls do not fit anyone's definition of an emergency. "It's so easy to use and easy to remember, people have begun calling 911 for anything," says AT&T's John Cohen, an ex-cop. In some places, 90 percent of the calls are for nonemergencies. In Columbus, callers want to know the kickoff time for Ohio State football games. In Los Angeles, says frustrated Police Chief Willie Williams, callers include "people who call 911 for the time of day. They call 911 for directions, as if we"re Triple A. They'll call and ask what are the best seats at the Coliseum, at Dodger Stadium, how do I get to Disneyland, what happened at some meeting." Cops admit they"re partly to blame because they sold 911 so aggressively, failed to teach the public how to use it properly and went out of their way for so long to respond to all calls, emergency or not. "There was a failure on everybody's part to anticipate the downsides," says Joseph Brann, who runs the Justice Department's community-policing program. Costly problem. The quickest fixes are more operators or more lines, but both are expensive; customer surcharges usually fund the basic 911 phone networks, but answering centers are commonly paid for by financially squeezed local governments. During the past dozen years, the volume of 911 calls in Los Angeles rose 70 percent, but staffing dropped until a spate of bad publicity caused the City Council to cough up $300,000 for some backup operators, a bit of furniture and some painting. After two unsuccessful efforts, Los Angeles voters in 1992 approved a $235 million bond issue for a massive 911 upgrade, but the new system won't be completed until at least 2000. New 911 systems in Chicago and New York cost $217 million and $156 million, respectively. Meanwhile, the proliferation of cellular phones is creating a host of new challenges for 911 systems. The first is almost 18 million additional 911 calls every year from cell phones. In California, cellular 911 calls to the Highway Patrol jumped from 29,000 in 1985 to a projected 2.8 million this year. Calls from cellular phones don't provide the location and number of the caller the way calls from standard phones do. It sounds like an easy enough problem to solve--just tell the dispatcher where you are--but panicked callers often have trouble describing their location, especially if they"re traveling with a cell phone miles from home. Hang-up calls can't be re-located. In addition, the routing technologies of cellular systems may send a cellular 911 call to the wrong dispatching center. Some state police agencies collect their cellular 911 calls at central locations, then have to take precious time parceling them out. But there is some good news on the cellular front. In February, the 911 trade groups reached an agreement with the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. Under the agreement, within 18 months or so, cellular technology allowing a 911 dispatcher to locate a caller's cell site will be phased in; within five years, the caller's exact location, within 125 meters, will be available. The groups are hoping to obtain the necessary blessing of the Federal Communications Commission within weeks. All these issues are loading more and more responsibility on 911 dispatchers, who are sometimes poorly trained and often overworked and overstressed. "very few people call to wish you a nice day," says Ronnie Rand of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). Barbara Stone, a senior police service representative in Los Angeles, has grown 10 years' worth of thick skin but admits there are times she can't just shake off the pain. "A guy came home from work, and he had left his daughter home alone," she says, her eyes growing moist as she recalls a call made years ago. "And she was maybe 11 or 12. And he came home and somebody had stabbed her to death. So, talking to this guy, to come home and find his daughter dead ...." Stone stops. "see," she chokes. "That one still gets me." Salaries for dispatchers frequently don't exceed the low-$20,000 range, and turnover is high. Two years ago, an undercover investigation by Chicago's Better Government Association found ten 911 dispatchers sleeping on the job. Slowly, some of these problems are being addressed. Trade groups such as APCO and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) are working to improve and standardize training for dispatchers. New centers like the ones in Chicago, New York and Atlanta have expanded capacity and are designed to reduce stress (box, Page 38). But for police chiefs, the larger question is how to wean the public off frivolous 911 calls, weed out the nonemergencies, service the public in ways other than rapid response and give cops more time to work with neighborhoods in really fighting crime. In recent years, many law enforcement executives have questioned the entire foundation on which 911 is built--the idea that police can stop crimes by responding rapidly to citizens' "emergency" calls. Landmark research in several cities has found that most of the calls in which officers are dispatched--50 to 90 percent in most places--are not about crime. Fewer than 5 percent of most cities' total dispatched calls, the researchers concluded, are made quickly enough for officers to intervene or make an arrest. Research in Kansas City, Mo.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Peoria, Ill.; Rochester, N.Y., and San Diego found that rapid police responses led to arrests in only 3 percent of serious reported crimes. "In many individual cases, 911 systems and police responses have had wonderful and heartwarming outcomes," write researchers Kelling and Coles. "Yet on an aggregate level, cases in which 911 technology makes a substantial difference in the outcome of criminal events are extraordinarily rare." Fast or good? Nevertheless, in many cities, response time is still considered the key test of a police department's effectiveness. People want quick responses, and the press often focuses on the issue. Weaning the public away from rapid response is a tough sell. "In a sound-bite political arena, even if politicians felt this made sense, who wants to build a campaign around it?" asks John Eck of the Crime Control Institute, a think tank. The result is that 911 dominates the operations of most of America's police departments, "and you never have any of the discretionary time that community policing demands," says Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier. "The equation is simple," write Harvard's David Kennedy, Mark Moore and Malcolm Sparrow in their book, Beyond 911: A New Era for Policing. "The more officers a department reserves to answer 911 calls, the swifter and more sure the emergency response, but the fewer people and less time left for doing anything else, such as foot patrol, neighborhood organizing [or] crime prevention." Police departments are trying different tactics to achieve the goal of so-called differential response. Since the 1980s, many departments have siphoned off an increasing number of nonemergency 911 calls to special units that take reports over the phone. These telephone reporting units, staffed by civilians or officers on injury status, can take minor theft or nuisance reports, for instance, or arrange for a community-relations officer to meet with the complainant at a later, less busy time. Many officers are skeptical, but studies suggest the public will eventually accept this approach if it is explained carefully. The Baltimore Police Department has increased the number of calls handled by its phone unit from 13,911 in 1987 to 55,822 in 1995, and late last year, the phone unit expanded to round-the-clock operations. In April, the communications division directed that calls such as indecent exposure, larceny, animal disturbances, gambling and loitering be referred to the phone unit if the incidents were not in progress, a suspect wasn't on the scene, no one was hurt and no evidence or additional witnesses were available. The Edmonton, Alberta, Police Service has gone even further, reworking its whole system in 1992 to revolve around a dozen community police stations where citizens are encouraged to report many nonemergency incidents in person. To help the public adapt to the changes, the Police Service created "red pages' in the phone book with a comprehensive listing of station locations, phone numbers, hours of operation and types of services offered. The result: In Edmonton, 911 calls to the cops have dropped from 84,431 in 1991 to 53,191 last year. Other departments want to follow Edmonton's lead but are worried they won't be able to process reports at precinct houses, where calls now may be answered only by an overworked desk sergeant. Everyone agrees public education is critical to solving the problem, but some argue education alone hasn't worked and must be accompanied by something else--like new, easy-to-remember phone numbers for nonemergency calls. Most police departments have nonemergency numbers, but they've rarely been memorable or marketed as aggressively because so much of the focus has been on 911. Buffalo plans to inaugurate a new, nonemergency number this summer and has hired a local advertising agency, the Schutte Group, to help launch the effort. The firm has copyrighted a sequence of rhyming slogans: "For a real emergency, call 911; we'll quickly send someone! Nonemergencies, it's 853-2222, and we'll tell you what to do." Officials feel a seven-digit number more clearly denotes a nonemergency. Local corporations and media have been asked to help market the message with public-service announcements, bookmarks, banners and grocery bags. Los Angeles officials began their own public-education campaign about 911 overload in February and hope to tie it into a new, nonemergency 800 number in the next several months. AT&T officials want to establish a single, national nonemergency 800 number that could be routed to the nearest police department. AT&T has talked to a number of chiefs and may test the concept with the Baltimore Police Department this summer. But the National Emergency Number Association opposes the idea, arguing that it could confuse people accustomed to the current arrangement, especially if not all systems sign up for the AT&T idea. Cops agree they've got to find some way to break the tyranny of 911. But no one watching the blinking lights thinks that will be easy. "Nine-one-one is almost like heroin," says communications Sgt. Louis Hopson of the Baltimore PD. "It's easier to get people on it than off."