Despite cutbacks, 3-1-1 turns the dial up a notch

WITH A big storm approaching, Philadelphia's 3-1-1 call center kicked into gear Sunday, with operators coming in to field thousands of calls about snow plows and SEPTA service.

The center is usually closed on Sundays, but 3-1-1 Contact Center Director Rosetta Carrington Lue said it is standard practice to work during times of crisis.

"It's part of the status quo now that in cases of emergency we bring people in," Lue said, noting that there were 5,000 calls between noon Sunday and 8 a.m. Monday. "It's worked really well for the city, especially during SEPTA strikes, floods, snow emergencies."

It's been two years since Mayor Nutter launched the city's 3-1-1 line, which provides a number for residents to call with nonemergency complaints or questions.

Modeled on similar programs in other cities, 3-1-1 was billed as a way to reduce stress on emergency 9-1-1 operators and provide better customer service to residents.

Because of fiscal constraints, some goals for the service have been downsized. Plans to spend millions on customized software were put on hold. And though initially the line was open 24 hours a day, hours have been cut back twice. Now it's available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

Still, the number of calls was slightly up this year, with 1,262,053 calls through Dec. 1, compared with 1,217,064 calls in 2009, according to city data.

Of the calls this year, 87,705 were requests for services like fixing streetlight outages, vacant-lot maintenance and towing abandoned cars. According to Lue, 94 percent of those requests were fulfilled. The rest of the callers were looking for answers to questions about court hours, trash collection or how to get city licenses.

The center has 48 call-takers and agents and an annual budget of $2.3 million.

A key issue facing the call center is whether it will need a technology upgrade. Plans to spend millions on customized software were put on hold because of budget concerns before the center opened.

Lue said the center was in the process of a review to establish exactly what new technology it needs and how much it might cost. A year ago, former Managing Director Camille Barnett said the center could need an investment of $5 million to $7 million, but Lue said she though the cost would be lower than that.

Another hope, Lue said, is to ramp up the hours again.

"The goal is to go back to a 24-7 operation," she said. "Customers tell us, 'We want you to extend your hours.' But it has to be financially feasible."