D.C. Mayor Marion Barry yesterday said the city's 911 emergency telephone system is "outdated and obsolete" and proposed that the City Council adopt emergency legislation to overhaul the system and to transfer the cost from the city government to telephone users.
In a letter and a bill sent to City Council Chairman David A. Clarke yesterday, Barry said the 911 system needs to be modernized to make it more "effective, efficient and reliable.
"Avoidable delays in reaching appropriate emergency aid are occurring to the jeopardy of life, safety and property," he said. The mayor said that the District's system, installed in 1972, is the oldest in the country and that replacement parts have to be made by hand.
Currently, emergency calls are tape-recorded as a clerk simultaneously enters the data into a computer. A radio dispatcher then reads the information from a computer terminal and broadcasts it to police units on the street. But according to Pauline Schneider, the mayor's director of intergovernmental relations, the system is malfunctioning, and calls are not being answered or the phone clerks are not hearing the rings.
The mayor's proposal came just two days after council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) called for an overhaul of the system. Winter, who was beaten and knocked to the ground last month as she struggled with a robber outside her home, said her neighbors and staff had difficulty reaching the 911 center.
Under Barry's proposal, the city would get a more reliable computerized system that would also print out the caller's telephone number and address, Schneider said.
Schneider said police indicated that such a system would have helped them locate a caller who spoke in a hushed voice just before a gunshot was fired and the telephone line went dead.
Barry estimated that it would cost $1.5 million to install the new system and that the maintenance and operating costs would be about $98,000 a month. "It is my view that these costs should be borne by the users and collected via a fee on users' monthly telephone bills," Barry said in the letter to Clarke.
The city pays about $5,500 a month for the 911 service, according to Schneider, who said the mayor's proposal would cost each telephone user between 10 and 15 cents a month.
Yesterday, City Council members questioned why the mayor wants the council to declare an emergency. Clarke said he does not plan to introduce the bill on an emergency basis today and has referred the permanent bill to the council's public service committee. Under the council's rules, the emergency bill could be introduced by another council member.
"There are some serious questions and the mayor has asked us to agree with him without adequate opportunity to address the issues," Clarke said.
Other council members indicated that their major concern is the idea of making telephone users pay for overhauling the 911 system.
Council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1) said that the emergency system is a service just as collecting trash is a service and should be viewed that way by the government.
"The problem I see with 911 is that the computer is broken and if it is broken the city government has the responsibility to the taxpayers to see that it is fixed," said council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), chairman of the council's public service committee.
Meanwhile, the city government has already petitioned the Public Service Commission to institute a surcharge that would require telephone users to pay for the 911 system, Howard Davenport, the commission's general counsel, said yesterday.
Fearing that the city might encounter the same difficulties it faced earlier this year when the commission ruled that the city could not transfer the $12 million cost of city street lighting to Potomac Electric Power Co. customers, the mayor gave the commission the necessary authority to approve a surcharge for the 911 system.