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Community safety, when do you call 911?

Posted by Rona Fischman September 17, 2012 02:09 PM

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When I was writing at my desk at home one day, a car alarm went off a block or so away. From the sound of it, the car was on the next street, or maybe even the street beyond that. I started thinking about making a phone call about it. Then it stopped. The hesitation I felt, when I heard the alarm, is whether this is a 911 (emergency) call -- because a car is being stolen at this very moment -- or whether this is a 311 (non-emergency) call -- because I was hearing a nuisance alarm.

This summer, I had a long chat with a community policing officer about home security. She told me that using 911 for non-emergency calls will not only waste resources, it also will get a slower response, if it is not an emergency. The example she gave was calling the police about the creepy guy sitting in the car on a residential street. If you call 911, they will ask if he is doing anything threatening. (He’s not.) But, if you want to know if he has any business there, or if he is doing something not-legitimate, the place to call is 311 (or the police, non-emergency number.) The officer told me that most of the time, that person is working on a disability case or a divorce case and is hoping to catch a cheater.

The 311 technology has been out there for a while now. Instead of calling a “city hall” number to get transferred around, cities and towns have adopted a 311 system. Like 911, it is a central call site for all non-emergency service calls.

Somerville Patch
checked in with 311 and found these were the top ten non-emergency service calls:

Call Type/number of calls January 2, 2009- July 31, 2012
Trash-TV/Monitor/14,069
School buildings/5,813
Pothole/5,628
Trash missed pickup/4,581
Dept. of Public Works, Misc/4,225
Recycling, missed pickup/4,079
Report man/3,887 (there’s my creepy guy example!)
Sidewalk repair/3,471
Tree trimming/2,685
Illegal parking/2,356

In Massachusetts, 311 systems are in place in Newton, Springfield and Somerville. Do you know of anywhere else? Is it helpful for a municipality to have one number to contact all non-emergency services?

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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