Non-Emergency 311 Centers Can Save Lives

When disasters strike towns and cities, 911 centers quickly become inundated with calls beyond those that are truly life-threatening situations. The result is that emergency response is delayed which can sometimes lead to deadly consequences. A case in point is a story in the New York Post about how New York City’s 911 center was “swamped” by non-emergency calls and how it “failed as a lifeline for Sandy’s victims.” Back in 1996 the City of Baltimore became the first to establish the 311 number to divert non-emergency calls away from 911 centers. Over the years 311 call centers have been used in many crises including terrorist concerns in Baltimore in 2001, Chicago’s West Nile Virus response beginning in 2005, the Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse into the Mississippi River 2007, and the Riverside, California’s wildfires that same year.

Philadelphia’s recent experience with Hurricane Sandy, when citizens downloaded the new Philly311 mobile app by the thousands, reminds me of the experience Miami-Dade County had during their disastrous hurricane season of 2005. Before 311, Miami-Dade residents had to call a 7-digit hotline number for non-emergency matters. During Hurricane Dennis in July 2005, virtually no one called the number for services or information and only 25% used it for Hurricane Katrina in August (see chart to the right). The result was that 911 lines were overwhelmed and emergency responders were delayed. Not long after the 311 center went “live” in early September Hurricanes Rita tore through the area followed by Wilma in October 2005. During these latter two disasters, the percentage of calls to Miami-Dade County through the 311 center jumped dramatically to 60% and 79% respectively.

In this new era of smartphones, we can see a similar trend with the City of Philadelphia’s new Philly311 mobile app which was unveiled in September 2012. While Miami-Dade saw a dramatic increase in calls to their new 311 center during the hurricanes that hit them within weeks after its opening, Philly311 experienced a tremendous increase in the number of downloads for their new PublicStuff app. City officials made hurricane preparation tips and information readily available through the app and directed residents to use the app to report non-emergency issues in order to alleviate a flood of requests to call centers. This app enabled citizens to acquire information directly from the City regarding Hurricane Sandy in late October. As the hurricane approached the City the number of downloads increased almost ten-fold to over 4,500 downloads in just 3 days. The number of downloads was so explosive that on Monday, October 29th, the app was the 33rd most downloaded iPhone application in the United States.

Here are some of the ways Mayor Nutter and the City of Philadelphia reduced the call volume to their 911 center during Hurricane Sandy in order to improve disaster response:

1. Mayor Nutter took on the role of communications offer by making himself available to the media with press conferences, interviews and more.

2. City officials created a custom hurricane widget for storm-related information, evacuation notices and more so residents had access to pertinent information around the clock.

3. City officials directed residents to download the Philly311 app and to use it to report non-emergency items.

4. City officials and PublicStuff worked together to be fully responsive to residents during the storm. Instant updates were made on Twitter regarding the storm and hurricane specific service requests were published immediately for citizen use.

What would you do to encourage citizens not to call 911 for non-life threatening emergencies in order to improve emergency response?

For information on disaster preparation tips, especially for the upcoming Winter Season, visit our Winter Disaster Resource Guide.

Jack O’Byrne is the 311/CRM Industry Specialist for the mobile app/CRM firm of PublicStuff and is a PhD Candidate at Virginia Tech’s Center for Public Administration and Policy with research focusing on the diffusion and evolution of 311 citizen service centers.

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