Not too long ago, I had the misfortune to experience the dual calamity of being a victim of a criminal assault at a time when the District's emergency response system, 911, was either overloaded or malfunctioning.
I cannot fully express the embarrassment that I felt at the time. It was bad enough being mugged in my own back yard, but not being able to summon the Metropolitan Police Department for emergency assistance added insult to injury.
There I was, alone, on my way to an early- morning meeting at city hall. As I was getting into my car, some desperate youth attempted to persuade me, through physical force, to surrender my handbag. Well, not being an easy touch on any point of conflict, I resisted. Needless to say, after a brief but noisy tussle, with the strength of the handle on my bag giving way before my own, the young man scurried away with my favorite Gucci.
The ruckus we created, as I fought for rightful possession of my belongings, alerted the neighbors, many of whom came at break- neck speed to my aid -- too late. They missed the fray. "No problem!" I advised, as I shook myself off, gathered my wits and rushed to the telephone. "911 will take care of this!" I was thoroughly confident that within a few short seconds, our "city's finest" would have the area sealed shut and the perpetrator's arrest would be a foregone conclusion.
I dialed for help with all of the rapidity that touch-tone service affords: 9-1-1. I heard the exchange connect as my confidence grew with frantic anticipation. Then, like a blow no less stunning than that which felled Goliath, I heard: "Be-e-ep, Be-e-ep, Be-e-ep!" Was this damn thing actually busy? It cannot be, I thought.
It was. Half the neighborhood was at my back door and their just-robbed council member could not get the police department on the telephone!
I did, however, get through for emergency response within a few minutes. Needless to say, a single moment in a crisis seems like an eternity. The police arrived promptly, and, although badly damaged, my handbag was recovered with all of its contents intact. The criminal assailant was eventually arrested.
But suppose the emergency had been a matter of life or death? Suppose one of my neighbors had become gravely ill, called the emergency ambulance service by dialing 911and gotten a busy signal?
Dialing 911 means, to most people, dialing the police. But it is more complicated than that. 911 is also the number for immediate access to emergency ambulance assistance, the fire department and rescue services. When the public is in need of vital emergency services, a busy signal will not do.
Problems with the system, human and/or mechanical, are not entirely to blame for delays in emergency response. The public at large also shares a good amount of the responsibility for tie-ups. I have been advised by the Metropolitan Police Department that, as a conservative estimate, 60 percent to 70 percent of all 911 calls are not of an emergency nature. The department says this is not solely a District problem; it's a national dilemma too. Most major cities face the burden of an avalanche of 911 calls about things that are far from an immediate threat to human life or property.
Knowing these alarming statistics, I have requested that my constituents, before dialing 911, remember that this number is for emergency services only. It is not for rush- hour traffic information, reporting "suspicious characters" or asking, "Where do I go to get thus-and-such?" These types of calls greatly impede the ability of our 911 operators to perform effectively.
A number of proposals are being considered by the District to improve the technical aspects of 911 service. Extra lines, faster switching systems and overflow mechanisms are all worthy but expensive options. Perhaps, in the meantime, we should, as responsible citizens, restrain ourselves from using this important number for less than crisis needs. This cooperation alone will relieve the tremendous burden on the 911 emergency response system until the appropriate, cost-effective communication innovation can be put into place.
The telephone book could be our immediate salvation.