During a recent unannounced visit to the police department's emergency communication center, City Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) noticed that a report of a "man slumped over the wheel of a yellow cab" was lumped in a list of nonemergency calls.
When she asked about the call, Winter said her communications-center guide immediately went to a computer and switched the report to a priority status. "That was done because I asked," Winter told a reporter.
"I was concerned," Winter said later. "The man could have been sick. He could have been shot. Somebody reported this and nothing was being done. By all indications there should have been a police car or an ambulance sent out."
During her 90-minute visit to see the city's 911 emergency system in operation, Winter said she saw three workers, about 15 computers and flashing lights that indicated that all of the calls were not being answered.
The center located at police headquarters on Indiana Avenue receives calls reporting fires, heart attacks, assaults, burglaries, missing children and lost cats and dogs.
"I would hate for the public to think that they are not protected by 911, but they are not," said Winter.
Winter should know. Last month, she was beaten and knocked to the ground near her Northeast home by a man who snatched her purse. Winter said later that her neighbors and staff had trouble contacting police through 911.
Last week she asked for an overhaul of the emengency answering service.
On Monday, Mayor Marion Barry proposed that the City Council introduce emergency legislation to revamp the 911 system and have District telephone customers pay the $1.5 million cost of installing a new system and the $98,000 monthly operating and maintenance costs. The mayor called the 911 system "outdated and obsolete" and said that "avoidable delays in reaching appropriate emergency aid are occurring to the jeopardy of life, safety and property."
Winter received some indication of similar problems in a letter that she received from Police Chief Maurice T. Turner.
Turner maintained that police had received four calls regarding Winter's attack and responded within 12 minutes after receiving the first call. Nevertheless, Turner also said that the 911 computer-assisted system was being repaired when the first call came in. As a result, he said, all incoming calls had to be handwritten and someone had to manually search a street directory and identify the proper police district and patrol car beat before a police office could be assigned to respond.
"Based on the procedures that were in existence during the reporting of this incident, the communications division did experience an unusually high number of overrings 911 calls not being answered immediately," Turner wrote Winter.
Winter says she was concerned about problems with the 911 system long before her attack, but other council members said that they were not aware that the 911 system had created a crisis that would necessitate emergency action from the council.
In fact, council members refused to consider the mayor's proposal on an emergency basis, saying that they wanted time to consider the questions raised by the proposal.
The mayor's staff has been studying the matter for some time. Pauline Schneider, the mayor's director of intergovernmental relations, said the police department first introduced the idea of enhancing the 911 system a year and a half ago. She also said that it would take from 18 months to two years before the improved system would be in operation, if the council adopted the mayor's proposal.
The mayor's proposal leaves a host of unanswered questions, council members said. Where is the evidence that the 911 system needs to be overhauled? Why should the council act immediately? If there is a major problem, why hasn't the police department brought the situation to the council's attention and asked for more money to improve the 911 system? These are among the questions being asked by council members.
Council members have indicated they want answers to those questions and many more before adopting any legislation to rescue the 911 system.