Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Calif.), chairman of the House subcommittee that must approve the District government's budget, questioned the wisdom yesterday of the District's policy on 911 and nonemergency telephone services.
Dixon, who heads the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District, suggested in budget hearings that the police department's unpublicized introduction of a voice recording for overflow 911 calls was ill-advised, and that coupling a nonemergency hotline (8-DC-HELP) to 911 may encourage too many people to call the government for help.
"I believe in providing constituent services, but you cannot provide everything to everybody," Dixon told Joseph P. Yeldell, director of the D.C. Office of Emergency Preparedness.
Dixon's questions followed news reports on May 2 that the police department was experimenting with the use of a voice recording on its 911 emergency telephone system. The recording said: "You have reached the Metropolitan Police Department. Please hold on and your call will be answered in turn."
The subcommittee chairman, suggesting that the department should have notified the public of the program, said, "I think that you have taken some knocks in the press and on TV that could have been avoided."
Yeldell, whose agency does not have responsibility for 911 but who served on the mayor's advisory commission that developed the program, conceded that "in hindsight" there might have been another way to introduce the recording.
Yeldell said the recording, which was switched off after news reports but since reactivated, is part of an "Enhanced 911" program that automatically provides emergency operators with the telephone number and address of the caller. The recording is needed to inform overflow callers that they have reached the correct number, he said.
The 8-DC-HELP number was installed in December to handle the large number of 911 calls that were not true emergencies. The city receives 1.2 million 911 phone calls each year, nearly half of which are not emergencies, Yeldell said. When an operator determines that such a call is not urgent, the caller is switched to the 8-DC-HELP number.
Dixon said that the city should consider another way to counter the large number of nonemergency calls. Switching callers over to 8-DC-HELP, he suggested, only encourages residents with minor problems to call 911.
"You reward them for making [the 911 call] because you refer them to someone," he said. "I would think that if I called 911 and I got some assistance, I wouldn't think to call DC-HELP the next time."
Yeldell said that the 8-DC-HELP line provides operators with a wealth of information about callers. With the aid of computer tapes provided by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, he said, operators can note the ward, precinct and Advisory Neighborhood Commission district of the caller.
Such information can be used to compile complaints and problems related to city services and is a "management tool for the mayor and agency heads," he said.