10/6/08 City Business – Off the Hook: City Works to Iron Out Wrinkles in Info Hotline
October 6, 2008
Off the Hook: City works to iron out wrinkles in info hotline
by Jaime Guillet
The city has endured its share of criticism about its 311 information hotline, but officials agree it was invaluable before and after Hurricane Gustav despite troubleshooting that still remains on the city’s to-do list.
If a New Orleans resident dialed 311 on Aug. 29, the day before Mayor C. Ray Nagin called a mandatory evacuation, the caller likely would have heard a busy signal. In the days leading up to the evacuation with Gustav threatening the city, hundreds of people who tried to call 311 to register for the city-assisted evacuation program were unable to get through, said Saket Soni, lead organizer for the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
The nonprofit that assists day laborers “tested” the 311 system by placing nearly 300 calls in the three days before the storm. Only one call — the 53rd — was able to get through, Soni said. Soni said some of his center’s clients tried to get through to receive evacuation information and experienced long wait times.
“We represent day laborers, homeless, low-wage workers and families,” Soni said. “Typically, these are not the people with cell phones or lots of minutes, so evacuation can depend on reaching the 311 line. It raises questions about people being able to access information when information matters most – during an emergency.”
But Harrison Boyd, the city’s new Management Information Services interim director, and the 311 vendor, Dallas-based ACS State and Local Solutions, say the service performed well under the emergency circumstances. The city registered 16,391 people for the assisted evacuation between Aug. 25-31.
Boyd said the city and ACS worked on an hourly basis to “tweak the system” to meet the need. On Aug. 29 and 30, the day Nagin called the mandatory evacuation, 7,830 people registered with the city through its San Antonio and New Orleans call centers.
“The question is: Are you setting up a system for the extreme or are you setting the system up for your normal day-to-day operations?” Boyd said. “311 went from normal operations to emergency mode and in emergency mode, the focus is on providing 24-hour service.”
Based on that question the decision was made to not buy more phone lines, Boyd said. During normal circumstances, 311 has a maximum of seven operators working two shifts with an average 2-minute wait time for callers.
For Gustav, 311 had 15 operators. The wait time before 4 p.m. Aug. 29, when ACS opened its San Antonio call center and provided an alternative toll free number, was about an hour to an hour and a half, said John Polk, ACS Government Solutions chief operating officer.
Also, the city had to adjust City Hall’s circuit, which has 300 lines, to allow for the increase in 311 incoming calls.
Boyd said two factors created busy signals: too many calls at one time and 311’s ability to put someone on hold was over capacity. The city can put 240 calls on hold at one time.
By comparison, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development’s 511 line, an automated system that provides information about state highway conditions, can handle 700 callers at any one time and the 701st person would receive a busy signal, said DOTD spokesman Brendan Rush.
United Way’s 211 line, an integrated information and referral system that is a partnership of six regional providers functioning for all 64 parishes, can receive an unlimited number of calls, said Jonathan Padgett, information systems technology director for ViaLink, the 211 partner in greater New Orleans.
“You will never get a busy signal or if there is a limitation, it’s greater than we would ever need,” Padgett said.
The 211 system has 37 operators statewide working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Between Aug. 28 and Sept. 4, the 211 line handled 33,971 calls from the Shreveport, Monroe and New Orleans areas, including cell phone calls.
The city’s 311 line worked successfully throughout Gustav, said Julie Schwam Harris, deputy director of Intergovernmental Relations.
“We now have 20,000 people registered for the next time,” Harris said.
“We also were able to safely place 700 homeless (in shelters for the storm),” said Clarice Kirkland, director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Advocacy.
ViaLink attempted about a year ago to work with the city on its 311 system and assist in data sharing but efforts never went anywhere, Padgett said.
Boyd said he expects to complete a call center assessment by November and will invite ViaLink to collaborate on the 311 service.
“We want any kind of collaboration we can get from the community because that is our objective,” Boyd said. “Bottom line is that if there’s somebody out there that has an idea, we welcome them.”