- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Prince George's County's 911 telephone line is swamped on busy nights with non-emergency calls, creating delays for people who urgently need to reach the police.
Almost nine out of every 10 calls to the county's 911 line are non-emergency calls, said Public Safety Director Fred Thomas. Mr. Thomas said the county may need to invest in a non-emergency 311 phone system to take pressure off the overloaded 911 lines.
The most recent complaints came after College Park residents called police and fire departments for help as hundreds of University of Maryland basketball fans set fires in response to the Terrapins' loss in the national tournament.
Typical complaints from 911 callers were about recordings asking them to hold the line and their calls would be answered in turn. That was late March 31, a Saturday night. Friday and Saturday nights are usually the busiest times of the week for 911 calls.
It was not so busy on Monday, March 26, when LaNeice Livingston called 911 three times before an ambulance was dispatched to her Hyattsville home. Her 6-month-old daughter, Lauryn Lanese Livingston, was later declared dead at Prince George's Hospital Center.
"She had laid the baby down to sleep," said Mrs. Livingston's mother-in-law, Marie Livingston. The child's mother later went to check on the baby and found she was not breathing.
LaNeice Livingston twice called 911, got a recording and hung up, thinking she might have dialed a wrong number. Her third try was successful.
Within minutes, Lauryn was at the hospital, Marie Livingston said. Doctors later said she died of sudden infant death syndrome.
Until then, Lauryn had been a "miracle baby." Marie Livingston said she was born prematurely Sept. 25, weighing 1 pound 8 ounces. She was stronger and appeared more healthy than her twin brother, James, who now weighs more than 11 pounds.
Mr. Thomas said an investigation of the 911 calls for Lauryn has not been completed.
All 911 calls more than 1 million a year are rotated automatically among 15 to 18 dispatchers. Mr. Thomas estimated that 130,000 calls annually qualify as emergencies in the county, which has a population of nearly 802,000.
Dispatchers are trained to give crucial medical instructions, like cardiopulmonary resuscitation, over the telephone, Mr. Thomas said. They determine if the emergency requires response by police, firefighters or medics, obtain an address and dispatch the correct team.
If all dispatchers are busy, a recording asks the caller to be patient and hold the line. That is important, Mr. Thomas said, because hanging up and calling back puts the caller at the end of the line.
Handy cell phones may be part of the problem. An accident on the Beltway, for instance, may result in 30 to 50 calls from "passersby trying to be helpful," Mr. Thomas said.
Nationwide, 911 is for emergencies. Prince George's County is not alone in receiving 911 calls for non-emergencies, such as damages to property and directions for sightseers like "How can I get to the National Zoo?" Mr. Thomas said.
Prince George's emergency operators discourage such calls. "Call-takers, without being rude, will try to get them off the line," Mr. Thomas said.
Mr. Thomas, who was police chief of the District before taking over as public safety director in 1995, oversaw installation of a new 911 communications system in 1998 that he said has performed well.
Baltimore is among several governments nationwide using 311 for non-emergency calls. Mr. Thomas said it seems to be working well in Baltimore and that County Executive Wayne Curry is considering the system for Prince George's County.
"We think it is affordable, but we don't yet have a definitive cost," Mr. Thomas said of the 311 system.

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