ANNAPOLIS – The woman traveling on the Beltway last summer was sure she saw a man standing in the bay of a moving truck with a shotgun pointed at a neighboring car. She frantically dialed #77 from her car phone – a free direct line to the nearest State Police barracks from anywhere in the state.
Dispatcher Vondalea Payne at the Forestville State Police barracks, sent troopers to the area on northbound Route 4. As the two men exited the truck in opposite directions, troopers tackled them.
It turned out the woman who dialed the hotline saw a poster of a man holding a gun – not a real crook. The truck rental company put it in the bay to ward off thieves.
Call it a #77 success story – despite the ersatz ending. The hotline, now operational for nearly a decade, has evolved from a way to report broken down vehicles to a way for people to reach troopers quickly regarding virtually any matter – even some that police don’t expect.
“All of the sudden, all of the drama and excitement in her voice just stopped,” said Payne. “She said, `Never mind.'”
But the cell phone line may be a victim of its own success. False alarms and callers who use the service frivolously sometimes hamper the system, troopers said.
“That’s the problem,” said Sgt. Rus Newell, a trooper who works the phones with Payne. The hotline gives the police extra sets of eyes, but there is such a thing as too many eyes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 94 million Americans own cell phones; 80 percent had used the phone in their cars.
The system has benefits, troopers said. The public has an easy way to reach police and police hear of more, previously unreported, crimes like aggressive driving, drunk driving, fugitive sightings, carjackings and hit- and-run collisions.
Several arrests, Newell said, have been a direct result of a #77 call.
“It’s the 9-1-1 for the interstates,” said State Police spokesman Cpl. Rob Moroney. He has even heard of domestic violence #77 calls.
State police do not track of the number of calls they respond to from #77, but Moroney said the hotline has seen a steady increase in the frequency of calls over the years. Now a barrack could receive as many as 100 calls in an hour, he said.
Roadside call boxes and citizens band radios used to be the way interstate-highway travelers communicated with troopers in the state, but with the rise of cell phones those devices have become anachronistic.
“It’s just a great tool with everyone having cell phones,” Moroney said. “It just makes emergency service that much more efficient.”
Dialing 9-1-1 from a cell phone would connect the caller to county police.
“Before #77, I find it hard to believe that people would go to that call box to get help,” said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Myra Wieman. She used the cell phone service for the first time last week to report a mattress obstructing traffic on the Beltway.
Wieman was impressed by how quickly officers answered the line and responded to her call.
On some nights, however, the number of #77 calls can be burdensome.
“We’ll have all the lines lit up,” Newell said, “and they’ll just keep coming in.”
Too often, these days, calls are abuses of the system, Newell said.
Drivers have called in for weather reports, road conditions, even to complain about rude hand gestures by other drivers.
One driver actually asked what the weather was in San Francisco, dispatcher Payne said.
Then there are the multitudes of people who mistakenly report incidents.
The hotline was inundated with calls about Kofi Orleans- Lindsay, the suspect police were looking for in the murder of Maryland State Trooper Edward M. Toatley.
“Every black guy in a small car was Kofi,” Newell said. Orleans- Lindsay was apprehended in New York.