BETWEEN 1998 and 2004, the number of emergency calls made in Prince George's County soared from 853,000 to 1.3 million, due largely to an explosion in cell phone use compounded by the county's own brisk growth. During that period the number of call-takers in the county's emergency communications center increased by exactly zero; unsurprisingly, the average time before calls were answered inched up. Now it has taken a tragedy to jolt the county into addressing its own neglect.

On the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, neighbors who tried to report a house fire at midday in Chapel Oaks were put on hold for more than a minute before reaching a 911 operator. An elderly couple -- an 80-year-old wheelchair user and his 75-year-old wife -- died in the blaze. County officials insist that the fire department's response time to that incident, just under seven minutes, met its guidelines; they say the couple's death was not connected to the shortage of call-takers. Maybe not. But the fact remains that Prince George's officials have moved at a slug's pace to fill jobs that are critical in life-or-death situations.

Almost a year ago, mindful of the shortage, the county authorized the hiring of 16 additional 911 call-takers, an increase to 55 slots from 39. Alas, hiring has been glacial and turnover high. The bottom line: Almost nothing has changed. Only 41 call-takers are now on the payroll to do tasks that must be handled round-the-clock, seven days a week. The county says it needs 15 call-takers plus 10 dispatchers on duty for each 12-hour shift, but often just 12 call-takers are working. At the time of the fatal fire last month, around lunchtime at the start of a holiday weekend, only eight to 11 call-takers were at work, too few to handle even normal call volume. They were deluged with 183 calls in 30 minutes, including calls from those trying to report the fire. No wonder some were stuck on hold.

One reason for the shortage is an inexcusably slow and inefficient system for performing background checks on applicants for sensitive county jobs, including 911 call-takers. The checks, which involve investigating possible past drug use, criminal history and employment experience, can take six to eight months. This is absurd, a fact that the county has now recognized by tripling (from one to three) the number of investigators handling the checks. It also does not help that the call-takers, whose jobs are highly stressful and relatively thankless, earn a starting wage of just $27,000, less than in most other Washington area jurisdictions.

Shaken by the death of the elderly couple, county officials now pledge to have 55 call-takers at work by the end of the summer and to bring in administrative staff to help take calls until then. They are also planning to inaugurate a 311 call center for non-emergency calls to county government, which could take some of the pressure off the 911 operation. Let's hope that it works -- and that the county takes a more active approach to staffing sensitive positions in the future.