D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's criticisms of the city's 911 emergency telephone system drew angry retorts yesterday from dispatchers in the police department's communications division, who say the calls are being answered promptly despite chronic staff shortages.
The mayor, who proposed Monday that the City Council adopt emergency legislation to overhaul the system, called it "outdated and obsolete" and said delays in response time jeopardize "life, safety and property."
A police spokesman said the department would have no comment on Barry's remarks while the matter is being discussed by the City Council. He did arrange a quick tour of the 911 center but would not permit employes there to be interviewed.
But sources among the police dispatchers disputed Barry's contention and accused the mayor of exaggerating a problem they say he once ignored. They also said he proposed the $1.5 million emergency overhaul -- which would be financed by a 10-to-15-cent monthly increase in phone bills -- without contacting the communications division to see how the system is actually working.
In the past, according to police sources, Barry has turned down more modest budget requests to improve the system.
Two years ago, they say, the communications division tried unsuccessfully to get an "enhanced" 911 system, now in use by Prince George's County police. The estimated cost then was $8,000 to install and $100 per unit to maintain.
The council made no move yesterday to comply with Barry's request that it adopt immediate measures to upgrade the system.
Pauline Schneider, Barry's director of intergovernmental relations, said yesterday that police have pushed for an upgraded 911 system for some time but that there was uncertainty about the best way to finance it. Based on "several deficiencies and certain limitations" cited by the department, Barry wanted to take quick action, she said.
The mayor's proposal came two days after council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) called for an overhaul of the 911 center, which her neighbors and staff say they had difficulty reaching last month when Winter was beaten and knocked to the ground as she struggled with a robber outside her home. But Schneider said the proposed upgrading had been in the works before that incident.
Yesterday, Winter, too, made a specific proposal for change, introducing emergency legislation that would establish two additional telephone service lines besides 911. She has said it took police 20 minutes to respond to her emergency call.
In a letter to Winter, D.C. Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. said earlier this month that there were four incoming calls reporting the Oct. 24 incident, the first of which was received at 9:53 a.m. An officer arrived at the scene, he said, at 10:05 a.m.
But Turner also said that at the time of the first call, the 911 computer-assisted dispatch system was "down" for repairs and maintenance and that the center was operating in "a manual mode," with information from the incoming calls having to be handwritten and cars dispatched after a manual search through a street directory.
Turner said the 911 center experienced "an unusually high number of . . . calls not being answered immediately" during this period but that the center had no way of knowing "the origin of these unanswered calls." He said a temporary trunk line problem of this type, according to the C&P Telephone Co., "will eventually clear itself."