- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2008

Noisy neighbors? Car blocking the driveway? Starting this week, D.C. officials will ask residents to call 911 any time they need a police or fire department response, abandoning a strategy of directing non-emergency calls to 311.

The change is being made to eliminate confusion among residents about whether to call 911 or 311 during certain emergency situations and bring the District into line with other major cities that use 311 to offer information about city services, like streetlight replacement and graffiti-removal requests.

“We’re doing this so we can take the thinking out of the mind of the constituent,” said Janice Quintana, head of the District’s Office of Unified Communications. “In an emergency, they shouldn’t be thinking, ‘Should I call 911 or 311?’ ”

Miss Quintana’s office has been directing residents with inquiries about city services to 311 — the city’s non-emergency police line — from the citywide call center at 727-1000 for nearly two weeks. The 727-1000 number, a customer-service initiative begun by then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams in 1999, will eventually be phased out.

But this week officials will begin directing non-emergency police calls into the 911 system as part of a plan to improve efficiency.

Miss Quintana said the same operators answer both 311 calls and 911 calls. She said some callers call the 311 line several times for the same incident and then call 911 when police don’t respond fast enough. She said directing them to call 911 in all situations should lessen the call volume by reducing repeat calls.

But not everyone thinks merging the lines is a good idea.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, raised concerns about merging non-emergency police calls with emergency calls, saying he thinks it could overload the 911 system and will further confuse residents.

“There’s been a lot of investment in getting people to understand what number to call, and all that’s being undone,” said Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat.

He said the Office of Unified Communications has been mulling the change for about a year but has failed to justify it. He plans to hold a public roundtable Thursday to discuss the transition.

Cary Silverman, president of the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association, said he supports sending all police calls to 911 because the police department delivered mixed messages on what number to call for different types of crime.

“You’d hear at the community meetings to call 911 or 311 if you witness a crime,” Mr. Silverman said. “There’s never been a consistent message as to what 911 is for and what 311 is for.”

In September 2006, the city opened a $116 million state-of-the-art emergency call center in Anacostia to answer the roughly 1 million calls each placed annually to the city’s 911 line, the 311 line and to 727-1000.

Miss Quintana said the transition will streamline services offered by 911 call takers and follow the lead of other major cities that use 311 for city services.

The 311 number was first used in Baltimore in 1996 and was made available to municipalities nationwide in 1997. But Baltimore, which once used the line for police non-emergency calls, now uses it for inquiries about city services, as do other cities such as New York City and Chicago.

The District implemented the 311 line in 1999 as a way to relieve stress from the 911 system, which has had problems in recent years with dispatchers giving inaccurate or incorrect information.

Metropolitan Police and fire officials have privately acknowledged such problems, saying officers have been criticized for showing up late at scenes to which they were not dispatched properly or in a timely manner.

Police spokeswoman Traci Hughes said the department would not comment on the transition until Mayor Adrian M. Fenty made an official announcement.

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