MAYBE -- JUST MAYBE -- one of Washington's scariest experiences has been ended, or at least put on hold: the call to 911 in the District. Two months ago, when things seemed to be at their worst, one random caller got six rings, then a tape recording, then nine more rings and a repetition of the tape before a live voice came on the line. That system, we concluded, was an electronic disaster -- and never mind that all this fancy machinery did provide the police with the caller's phone number and address. If they couldn't snap up those receivers any faster, there wasn't any point in collecting a batch of names and addresses. But lately, the system seems to be jumping.
Reports on three calls to 911 bring good news. In two instances late last week, neither call went through even a complete first ring before a live voice came on, ready to respond. In the third instance, there were two rings, a brief taped message to hang on and, within one second, a real voice. We still don't like the idea of any recording when lives are on the line, but at least the responses come quickly these days.
People desperate for help don't want a recording when they punch up 9-1-1. They want to talk -- fast -- to somebody who will do something. That's why the District should consider its Great Tape Experiment a flop, and use these latest achievements as guidelines for hiring whatever it takes in the way of additional operators to go "live" every time.
Callers, too, can help by not clogging up the 911 lines with calls that aren't about emergencies. As it stands, about half of the more than 1.2 million calls received on 911 each year were nonemergencies. There's another fine phone service for these calls: Dial 8-DC-HELP, where operators are helpful.