A crush of fans exit a packed rail car as they utilized the efficient means of transportation on opening day of the new Nationals ballpark on Sunday, March 30, 2008. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The message has accompanied countless Metro rides. From tunnels in the District to the tracks across Maryland and Virginia, it’s always there.

“If you are in urgent need of police assistance while riding in the Metro system, please call Metro Transit Police at 202-962-2121,” the recording says.

But to many riders, it’s just background noise, no different from the rumbling trains and door chimes.

“I hear it so often I don’t pay attention anymore,” said Sari Houston, who works for a nonprofit organization in Alexandria and lives in Northeast Washington.

The message is “kind of white noise,” said Kate Blackburn, 23, of Rosslyn.

Regular riders have heard Metro’s announcement several times, but to many, the Metro Transit Police message is just background noise. (Audio courtesy of WMATA/The Washington Post)

So why does Metro have a police number? Why bombard commuters and tourists with an alternative to 911, perhaps the most recognized phone number in the country?

Metro says the announcement, along with station signs displaying the number, is about reminding riders to be vigilant while also giving them a way to reach Transit Police.

“We have roughly 500 police officers,” said Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn, the voice behind the announcement. “The thousands of [rider] eyes and ears that are out there can benefit us.”

Metro Transit Police, founded in 1976, has jurisdiction in the District, Maryland and Virginia. Its officers are responsible for 86 rail stations spread over 1,500 square miles and 160 bus lines.

The phone number reaches a call center in Landover that is staffed around the clock. Dispatchers alert Transit Police to incidents on Metro property. But city or county police are often closer, and Metro does not have its own emergency medical service. So in many instances, Metro dispatchers also call the local 911 center, using dedicated, direct lines.

Metro’s emergency number receives between 35 and 60 calls a day from the public, said Ron Pavlik, deputy chief of Transit Police. That’s a small fraction of the roughly 315 calls to the number each day, most of which are from employees using it for routine communication.

In comparison, the District’s emergency communications center received an average of 3,800 911 calls per day last year.

Pavlik said that most riders who want to report a problem go to station managers or to train or bus operators. And everyone knows 911, but riders need a number for situations that aren’t emergencies, Pavlik said. “I think it’s still important that our customers have an option,” he said.

That isn’t quite the message that comes across in the station announcement from Taborn, which directs riders to call Metro Transit Police if they are in “urgent need of police assistance.”

That sounds a lot like an emergency. But in an interview, Taborn said the number isn’t meant to replace 911. “If there’s an emergency, don’t try to remember 202-962-2121,” he said. “Call 911.”

Some riders said they didn’t realize that Metro has its own police force with its own number. Others said they had heard the message but never paused to save the number.

“I always tell myself I should, but I never have,” said Nick Dalton, 36, of Arlington County.

Until it was bumped for a temporary, holiday-themed announcement, Taborn’s message was played alongside reminders about elevator outages, platform safety and unattended bags.

“You’ve heard that announcement so many times that you don’t hear it anymore,” said Robin Powers of Alexandria after Taborn’s voice rang out in McPherson Square on a recent afternoon.

So what can Metro do to catch the attention of busy commuters?

“They need to come up with a jingle,” Powers said.

In some other big cities with subway systems, officials aren’t interested in promoting other emergency numbers. In Chicago, where city police patrol the system, riders are told to call 911. And although Philadelphia’s transit system has its own police force and a phone number, riders are encouraged to call 911.

“We tell people, if it’s an emergency, call 911,” said spokeswoman Jerri Williams. “911 is the national number that everybody’s aware of when there’s an emergency. We don’t need people to try and think, ‘What’s this number now?’ ”
Taborn’s message will return in the new year. But it won’t be around for long, because he is retiring in the spring. For a rider who only knows the chief as a disembodied voice, the first sign of a new Transit Police chief might come when a different voice begins accompanying the commute.