311 service goes rural route

Dukes County Sheriff's Department

The island of Martha's Vineyard, a summer vacation destination about five miles off the Massachusetts coast, today is going live with a 311 service that would automatically direct nonemergency calls to the local police departments there.

"Until [today], the only places that have actually utilized the 311 nonemergency police number have been large cities like Baltimore or Chicago," said Sheriff Michael McCormack of Dukes County, which operates the 911 emergency call center for the island.

"So what we have accomplished is not only to be the first 311 center in all of New England, but also be the first rural application of the 311 telephone system," he said.

McCormack said the service was needed to lighten the volume of nonemergency calls the emergency dispatch center was handling. A survey showed that 60 percent of the roughly 7,300 calls into its 911 line were of a nonemergency nature, he said.

Most of those calls came during the island's peak season, when its population swells to nearly 100,000, he said. The island has a year-round population of about 17,000.

About two years ago, McCormack brought together the chiefs of police on the island as well as the state police to discuss the issue. It applied and received a $178,000 grant from the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services program. About $65,000 of the grant was used to implement the system. It then took about two years negotiating with Verizon Communications, its local telecommunications provider, to implement the system. John Cohen, president and chief executive officer of PSComm LLC and the police chiefs' consultant on the 311 project, said Martha's Vineyard could possibly be the first community in the country to also use technology that automatically routes a residents' calls to their local police department rather than a central location.

"Call-routing technology has evolved to the point where you can pretty much route calls from houses across the street from each other to different locations," he said, adding that telecommunications companies had said that such a system was too complex to implement.

So, for example, if a resident in the town of Edgartown dials 311, that resident will get the Edgartown Police Department, McCormack said. "But say I'm in West Tisbury, a town that's in a different part of the island, and I dial 311, the same number, I will get the West Tisbury police department. That's what makes it unique."

McCormack said even if a resident calls 311, but really wanted 911, that call can be routed to the emergency dispatch center. However, he said residents dialing 911 or 311 on cell phones would not get the local law enforcement agencies, but get the state police department in Framingham, Mass., which has the ability to redirect such calls to the island.

He said future system enhancements would mean adding more government services or contacts through 311. For now, the emphasis will be on promoting usage of the 311 system through local media and radio stations, local vendor store fronts, on patrol cruisers, and through the local steamship authority, which transports 80 percent of the island's visitors.

McCormack said they've even developed a campaign slogan: "If you have an urgency, but no emergency, dial 311."


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