311 - One Person's Opinion

by Gary Allen, Editor, DISPATCH Monthly Magazine

Much has been written about the FCC's assignment of the three-digit number 311 for "non-emergency police services and other government services." Much of the information focuses on the Baltimore (Md.) implementation, and stresses how 311 generated a huge reduction in 911 calls, shorter answer times, and other improvements. However, analyzing the benefits of 311 is somewhat complex and the benefits aren't as clear cut as Baltimore's installation would lead you to believe.

The Baltimore (Md.) Police Department installed 311 in 1996. The 311 calls were answered by a team of light-duty police officers in a room down the hall from the main 911 calltaking center and police dispatch area. The project was billed as a way to reduce incoming 911 calls--and it did result in a huge decrease in the number of calls coming in to the 911 calltakers.

However, BPD wasn't clear on one point--prior to implementing 311, their department did not have a 7-digit non-emergency telephone number for citizens to dial. If you needed the police in Baltimore, you dialed 911--for everything. And because the department had no non-emergency telephone number, there was also no public education program to inform citizens the circumstances under which they should dial 911 (life-or-death incidents, etc.). As a result, citizens were pushing 911 for every conceivable type of incident, and in most cases that generated a police response.

Therefore, when 311 was implemented and publicized, there was a natural reaction--citizens began dialing 311 instead of 911. The number of 911 calls was reduced, and the answer times were decreased.

In Baltimore's case, 311 solved their particular, self-imposed problem--reduce 911 calls. However, their situation was rather unique--most cities already have a 7-digit number that fields non-emergency calls, and the public safety agencies have public education programs to help citizens make the choice when to dial 911.

In fact, whether 311 helped Baltimore overall remains up in the air--the University of Cincinnati published a huge study of 311 in 2003, and it appears that officers are actually handling more incidents than before. In fact, a large percentage of 311 calls end up being handled by patrol officers. So it's not clear if 311 had any effect on the street patrol operations of the department. [Acrobat, pdf format, 13.8 Mb!]

So far, the most successful 311 implementations have been for larger cities to consolidate their non-emergency, city services--Chicago comes first to mind. Before 311, they operated tens of separate city service call centers (big and small), and tracked citizen-reported problems separately. Now, a single 311 center handles all citizen calls, responses are coordinated (one problem may require more than one agency to respond), and all the problems and responses are tracked to improve accountability.

The 311 systems associated with police departments have demonstrated less improvement---Baltimore being the exception. California studied 311 for over three years and concluded--well, they said they couldn't come up with numbers significant enough to warrant a conclusion. They decided not to implement 311 state-wide, but have left individual cities to create their own 311 systems. San Jose (Calif.) did just that, and the calls ring into the same comm center that handles other emergency and non-emergency calls, allowing them to better prioritize call answering, but no measurably decreasing calls overall.

The claim that 311 is a "cure" for an overburdened 911 system is not completely accurate. Consider:

Does 311 Reduce Calls Overall?

Already have 7-digit
non-emergency number
Have no 7-digit
non-emergency number
Calls routed to
same center
Calls routed to
separate center
Calls routed to
same center
Calls routed to
separate center
No change
Reduction
Increase
Reduction

The increase noted comes from pent-up demand for police services from citizens who were prevented, or discouraged, from contacting the police by busy phone lines, wait on hold, etc. Baltimore is a perfect example of this citizen reaction (up almost 8% within the first few months).

If you route 311 to the same operators that now answer 911 calls, and the call volume remains the same, what have you accomplished? You've simply routed the callers through another telephone system, perhaps allowing more theoretical access to the 911 system. But without increasing the number of calltakers, there will never be an overall improvement in call answering times.

The first two years of Baltimore's 311 was paid from a federal grant. There's no information on the current costs of the program, but it's not cheap for a city this large.

For public safety purposes, 311 is a mixed success at best. For non-emergency city services, handled by a separate call center equipped with incident tracking software, 311 is a great success. If you're considering a 311 installation for your public safety agency, download the above University of Cincinnati report, analyze your situation, and look closely at the potential benefits. My advice: pass the 311 information on to your public works and other city agencies, and take a pass on implementing it yourself--unless you're like Baltimore.

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