When Carol Hurt spotted some black smoke coming from the basement window of her house in Fenton, Mo., last January, she snatched her cellphone to call 911. But nobody answered. The line was clogged.
She waited 24 seconds and hung up. On her second try, Ms. Hurt waited 53 seconds, the Saint Louis County records showed. Her address and telephone number were automatically recorded. Nobody was injured, but by the time rescue units arrived, Hurt's house had been reduced to ashes.
In the past several years, 911 - a three-digit number reserved by the police and fire departments for life-threatening emergencies - has evolved into a toll-free help line. Some call it to get weather forecasts. Others phone for sports results. One person even dialed the number to report a lost lottery ticket.
On an average day, 911 is called 268,000 times. In some areas, 80 percent of the calls don't qualify as emergencies.
In an effort to make certain that people in need of immediate assistance can get through, a growing number of US cities are adopting a new three-digit number - 311 - to take the pressure off the emergency system.
The concept is fairly simple: If your kitten is stuck in a tree, you would dial 311. If your house is on fire, 911.
Fourteen cities have or are about to implement the 311 system. Last week a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers recommended Los Angeles adopt the 311 system, which could be included in the next city budget, officials say.
"311 is a success," says Daniel Boulton, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, which is in charge of funding the program.
"People have responded well to this nonemergency number, easy to access, easy to remember. It has enhanced overall services provided to the community," he says.
The program started in 1996, after President Clinton requested that the Federal Communications Commission create a three-digit nonemergency number to unclog the 30-year-old 911 system.
Baltimore was the first city to adopt the system. Within a year, the number of 911 calls that had to be rerouted to an answering machine was cut by 82 percent, according to the Baltimore Police Department. Today, the 311 system handles 35 percent of calls to the police department, and the average pick-up time for emergencies has dropped from six to three seconds.
"If you are the one who is being shot at, three seconds make a real difference," says William Daniels, the 311-911 program administrator for the Baltimore Police Department.
Since 311 has taken effect in Baltimore, the number of police units dispatched to nonemergencies has dropped by 57,000. This has enabled the police department to increase foot-patrolling time by around two hours a day.
We went from a 911-driven department, where cops were going from call to call to call, to a more community-oriented department, Mr. Daniels says.
But not every city sees a need to play the numbers game. Both New York and Boston, for example, are sticking with 911.
In Boston, operators divert nonemergencies to a call-screening department, which calls back within an hour to write a formal report. The average pick-up time for 911 calls is 8 seconds, according to the police department, but around 5 percent of emergency calls are answered in 10 to 20 seconds.
Critics of 311 warn that the system falls short of the thorough reform police departments need.
George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University and co- author of the broken windows theory of crime prevention, says that police units rushing to respond to 911 emergencies rarely affect the outcome of a crime. Police officers should focus more on crime prevention, he says.
You dont want to keep the police from doing their preventive work in the name of rapid response, Mr. Kelling says.
Instead of building a new centralized 311 system, he says, police departments should develop programs to collect demands for services on a local basis. Police officers should also be sent out to gather information to help neighborhoods manage themselves.
But by making it easier to report a broken lamppost or an abandoned vehicle, the system gives citizens the opportunity to help police their own neighborhoods, says Ranjan Daniels, a spokesman for Chicagos Office of Emergency Communication.
In Chicago, people can use 311 not only to file a nonemergency report but also to ask about city services like library hours or upcoming festivals, and address complaints to the city. Citizens receive a tracking number, which enables them to follow the progress of their request.
311 enhances the communication between the city and the population, Mr. Daniels says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society