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3 Digits That Mean 'Crisis Only'

February 18, 1996

Need to score some choice seats for a Dodger game? Get directions to Disneyland? It should be as easy as a dip into your phone directory. But instead, nonemergency calls like these are being placed to 911, tying up lines meant to be reserved for life-threatening situations.

Last month, The Times reported that a record number of callers to the city's 911 emergency phone operation had hung up in exasperation after they were put on hold. The public is upset over this situation and the fact that political leaders have failed to deliver the "immediate improvements" in the system promised under Proposition G, a $235-million bond passed four years ago.

Clearly, despite a lack of key equipment, Los Angeles needs to do more to address the problems, particularly those caused by the legions who make nonemergency calls out of ignorance or maliciousness. Only one in five calls to the 911 system involves a true crisis, police say. Unnecessary calls delay response to emergencies.

On the supply side, Los Angeles officials believe they can ease the crush on the nation's largest 911 system with better equipment, which they hope will be in place by the year 2000. They are considering a measure to upgrade the operations center. While these moves are encouraging, the city could make better use of the tools already at hand.

The LAPD has requested funding for more 911 operators and is negotiating with the two local phone companies, GTE and Pacific Bell, for a universal-access number for nonemergency calls to police. L.A. City Council members have floated other suggestions, including billing the phones of callers who abuse the system (a suggestion police oppose for fear it could cause people to think twice before they dial for help).

Some obvious alternatives should not be overlooked. People should be reminded that we do have a 411 information number. And how about the phone books? The local police stations are listed prominently, up front.

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