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A 311 Call Line Could Ease 911 Burden But City Might Not Implement It

San Diego has a 911 crisis: dispatchers can’t answer emergency calls fast enough to meet national safety standards. An audit last year suggested one solution, and the city agreed to do implement it. Now, the city’s wavering.

Last year, the city of San Diego investigated how efficiently it fixes basic infrastructure problems.

The audit suggested creating a new system to keep track of service requests – a system that would make it easier for citizens and employees to alert the city to problems, easier to monitor the repair work and easier to review how efficiently the system was operating.

And if done well, the new, centralized system to report and track city service work would come with an added benefit: it was expected to reduce the volume of calls to 911. People who don’t know what to do if they find a pothole or water leak or graffiti in their neighborhood often end up calling 911, because that’s the number they know.

But the city may not be fully implementing the entire reporting system it committed to following last year’s audit.

Plenty of other cities have a second number that’s almost as well known and recognizable as 911. It’s 311, and in many cities 311 works with a website and mobile app where people can report problems without picking up a phone.

When cities create a centralized system and market it well, residents take notice and use it to report minor problems, instead of calling 911. That’s what’s happened in other cities, at least.

A year after the audit, reducing the volume of 911 calls the city receives has become a major priority. The city is in the midst of a 911 crisis, with dispatchers unable to answer calls fast enough to keep people in life-threatening situations from waiting on hold for minutes at a time before they report their emergency.

In Baltimore, according to a 2002 study published in Criminology & Public Policy, calls to 911 dropped 34 percent after the city implemented a 311 system in 1996. Low-priority calls – calls that simply were not emergency situations under any standard – disappeared from 911 almost entirely, falling 99.7 percent.

Last week, the city of San Diego unveiled the first part of its new system for citizens to report issues in the city. It’s called the “Get it Done” app, and it’s also the latest piece of the city’s growing open data effort. Mayor Kevin Faulconer unveiled it at a press conference and did the rounds on local TV promoting it.

Right now, city staff has unveiled only the mobile app – and it’s done that ahead of schedule. But it isn’t committed to setting up a 311 phone line at all, even though the phone line, app and website were all part of the city’s commitment following the audit.

In the coming weeks, city staff is presenting the City Council an action plan, which will include a list of options to pursue going forward. One of them is expected to include fully implementing the 311 system that includes a phone line, app and website. But the Council will also have the option of not building a 311 phone line at all.

If other cities’ experience is of any note, people are still far likelier to use a phone when there’s a problem than report it through a new app – no matter how nice the app is.

The Audit

The city audit last year wasn’t about 911 calls. It was about whether the city’s system for receiving and reacting to complaints about the state of its roads and sidewalks and water lines was effective.

The audit found that residents don’t know who to call when they stumble across minor problems in their community. The city could improve the situation by following the lead of most large cities by creating a single customer service center that handles all non-emergency concerns – the 311 system.

The new system should allow a phone line, web site and mobile app to take all complaints in to a single operating system. That system would then direct each complaint to the relevant department.

It would improve accountability, by making it easier to monitor response times and the quality of repair work. It would let the city collect more meaningful data, so leaders would have a better sense of where the city wasn’t doing a good job. It would boost the city’s efforts to create a robust open-data platform.

And it would reduce unnecessary calls to 911, the audit said. Other cities show the promise. Baltimore’s 311 system, the country’s first, cut 911 calls by 34 percent. A 311 line cut Sacramento 911 calls 10 percent.

The city doesn’t track the number of non-emergency, non-police calls that come into 911, so auditors couldn’t say clearly how many calls might no longer go to emergency dispatchers, competing for attention with actual emergencies.

But the auditors interviewed dispatchers, who confirmed they talk to lots of people who just don’t know what other number they’re supposed to call.

“People call 911 for all kinds of issues because they know we’ll answer,” one unnamed dispatcher told auditors.

“At night we’re 911, but during the day sometimes it seems like we’re 411 because people call us for all kinds of reasons,” another said.

The audit recommended the mayor and chief operating officer build a plan to implement the new citywide customer service center, which would include the 311 phone number, website and a smartphone application.

City staff agreed with the recommendation and said the 2016 budget would include a request to fund the program.

But now it’s not so clear if the city is getting all of the elements that the city committed to. It might not get a phone number at all.

911 Gets Too Many Calls

San Diego’s emergency 911 line is in crisis. The time it takes for the system to answer resident calls is increasing.

Faulconer and Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman announced last month steps they’d take to alleviate the problem. They’re spending more money on recruiting new hires, adding staff to assist 911 operators so they can spend more time answering calls. They will also begin posting data and give raises to 911 dispatchers.

It’s still not clear how, exactly, those changes will expedite 911 calls.

Faulconer and Zimmerman have also, though, stressed the value of getting fewer people to call 911 in the first place.

One common response from the department in various news stories has been the number of pocket dials 911 receives. The public can help improve the department’s emergency response by making sure their phones are locked and don’t inadvertently call 911, department officials have said. Officials have also asked residents not to hang up and redial when on hold, which further ties up dispatchers.

Likewise, when announcing the spending increases meant to address the issue, Zimmerman asked that residents call the police non-emergency line in non-emergency situations, file theft reports online and not call 911 with non-police related issues.

“As you’ve heard me say many times, public safety is a shared responsibility, and the public has an important role in this too,” she said.

311 Might Not Happen

The city isn’t sure if it’s going to go through with the 311 phone line after all.

The Independent Budget Analyst, or IBA, in a recent report said current plans call for between $3 million and $4 million on a “311-like” system without a call center. She pointed out not having one would mean limiting the number of residents who could take advantage of the system.

That might marginalize older or lower-income residents or those without Internet access.

Andrea Tevlin, the IBA, said the expectation when the City Council accepted the budget for a 311 system was that it would come with a phone line, not just a website and app. However, she reiterated that a final decision on whether the 311 line hasn’t been made.

“They’re headed toward more of a tech and apps approach,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that’s where they’ll stick. There is a cost-benefit question of a tech approach versus a call center approach. The call center can be expensive, but I don’t think they’re ruling it out.”

In cities near San Diego’s size, the annual 311 budget is between $1.7 million (San Antonio) and $3.7 million (Dallas).

In the city’s annual survey of residents, it found a vast majority of its residents would prefer contacting the city about problems without using the phone. Over 80 percent of respondents said their first choice wouldn’t be the phone.

Almis Udrys, director of the city’s Performance and Analytics department, which is rolling out the program, said that’s why the city started with the “Get it Done” app.

“The web and app is basically a pilot project,” Udrys said. “We’re trying to gather information on how something like this would work for a user, and for our employees.”

It would take time to set up the 311 center, Udrys said. It can’t happen overnight. The city would need to coordinate all the department staff that already takes service calls from residents, in addition to creating the new centralized system and call center. It could take a year or two to get running.

He said the department doesn’t have a clear estimate of how many 911 calls would be redirected to the new service – either as an app only, or with a phone line as well – except that the department expects it would improve the situation.

“Any communication channel you deploy that encourages people to call for non-emergency issues will have a positive impact on 911 call volume, and call volumes drive response times,” Udrys said.

But while residents might say in a survey they’d rather enter issues into an app or website, their behavior in other cities suggests otherwise.

For instance, data from San Francisco – center of the tech universe – shows phone calls last year were still the most common way that users reported an issue.

Out of the 109,877 issue reports San Francisco received last year, 46 percent came in by phone. Thirty-three percent were entered in an app, and another 13 percent came in through the website.

The City Council will decide whether it’ll implement the full service it agreed to implement following last year’s audit.

Udrys said his department in the next 60 days will give the Council a set of options to adopt a new roadmap to keep rolling out the program in the future. At least one of those options will include creating a 311 line.

“There are a lot of decisions to be made,” he said.

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