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311 to the rescue

Calling just this one non-emergency number could get someone to fill a pothole, heat your home, or help you find a job. But not in Boston - not yet.

To call City Hall, you might go through more numbers than a teenager packing a loaded cellphone.

There's the Office of Special Events, 617-635-3911, and the Office of Cultural Affairs, 617-635-3245.

The Boston Home Center, 617-635-4663, and the Rental Housing Resource Center, 617-635-7368.

The Jobs & Community Services line, 617-635-3342, and the Boston Jobs Bank line, 617-918-5480.

The Emergency Preparation line, 617-635-5322, and the Emergency Storm Center line, 617-535-3050.

There's one number for potholes, 617-635-7555, and another for problem catch-basin grates, 617-989-7000. A number for bike racks, 617-635-4004, and another for abandoned bikes, 617-635-7560. One number for missing traffic signs, 617-635-4283, and another specifically for traffic lights that don't turn green, 617-635-4688.

Not to mention the Mayor's Youthline, 617-635-2240 -- not to be confused with the Office of Children & Families, 617-635-2130 or the Safe Neighborhoods Youth Fund, 617-635-2258 -- and the Mayor's No Heat Hotline, 617-635-4500, which also happens to be the same number as the Mayor's 24-hour Hotline, 617-635-4500. Oh, and the main switchboard number is 617-635-4000.

Just to name a few.

And even after all that, you might find that some of these numbers, taken from official online city directories, have been merged, decommissioned, or otherwise subjected to change.

An abundance of phone lines into City Hall was once seen as a gateway to a host of specialized services. But today, more and more metropolises nationwide are streamlining their municipal numerology into a simplified call-center code known as 311.

Although it began a decade ago as a way to ease the burden on 911 police lines by redirecting nonemergency calls, 311 in many places has transformed into something bolder: a sweeping civic management system that smoothly captures citizen complaints, allows departments to better analyze the data of dissatisfaction, and plot problem-solving -- and then lets officials accurately judge whether their minions met their goals.

Yet here, critics say, the Hub of the Universe remains stuck in a technological time warp.

''This thing is working in other cities," said City Councilor Stephen Murphy, who's watched as more than two dozen other communities -- from mondo New York to mighty-mite Somerville -- signed on since he first called for 311 in Boston more than seven years ago. ''It's a no-brainer."

Last year, Murphy revived his push for 311 by cosponsoring an order for a public airing of the issue. At an ensuing April 2005 hearing before the Council's Public Safety Committee, the city again dug in its heels against 311, saying it's own system was working just fine.

The Council's response: In a nonbinding resolution passed last Dec. 14, its members urged the Menino administration to switch to 311.

By then, the philosophical sands had apparently shifted. In a Dec. 13 speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Thomas Menino announced that the city would experiment with technological advances to improve its delivery of constituent services, according to a statement at the time from the mayor's office.

311 by any other name
Now city officials say they are forging ahead with those plans. They say they want to implement all the sophisticated citizen-request tracking tenets of 311 -- except one.

Instead of using the new nomenclature of 311 as the one-stop-shopping portal into City Hall, the officials say they are keen on keeping the mayor's old 24-hour hotline as the single number. Though city councilors say they will lobby for 311, the mayor has the final call.

The city's acting Chief Information Officer, William ''Bo" Holland, says the city fears that 311 will give people the impression that calls will be answered by machines, not people.''There's a perception here . . . that 311 is an automated service," says Holland.

But backers say that a roll-out campaign could easily clarify that 311 involves live operators, and they believe that using the elongated 617-635-4500 in a city of many tourists, immigrants, students, and seniors would build an unnecessary digital barrier.

''The 311 system is a much easier number to remember -- and that's part of the idea," said freshman City Councilor Sam Yoon, who invoked the virtues of 311 during last year's campaign.

Some inside City Hall believe Menino may be reluctant to give up a number that's become part of his own urban brand. ''I recognize the mayor, for good reason, could be worried that he'll lose the connection he has with people through the mayor's hot line," says Yoon.

Yoon's solution: ''Let's call it 'the Mayor's 311.' "

In his December speech to the Chamber of Commerce, Menino touted a new techno stratagem toward resident requests that would include constant vigilance of Hub roads for potholes and other rocky conditions, according to his office. The mayor called Boston ''the world's greatest living laboratory."

On 311, though, Holland says the earliest a new system could begin is more than a year from now, in July 2007-- and that depends on finding some $4 million to $5 million in start-up funds.

''I can't guarantee it's going to happen, [but] I'm pretty sure," says Holland. ''The mayor has come to conclusion this is an important thing."

While Boston is still in its fact-finding phase, other cities have already spit-shined their 311 accolades for being able to attack -- and launch preemptive strikes against -- quality-of-life quandaries.

Ten years ago, Baltimore became the first city to offer 311 as a police nonemergency number after the Federal Communications Commission was asked to reserve it as national alternative to 911.

For Baltimore police, that shift gave officers up to 2 1/2 more hours a day to concentrate on community policing, according to the US Justice Department.

With violent crime becoming a constant siren in the city, Murphy believes the short-staffed Boston Police Department could use such relief from taking 911 calls on what he says is everything from questions about the starting time for Red Sox games to queries about the day's weather.

''They're undermanned anyway," says Murphy. ''Anything we can take off their plate is beneficial to all of us."

But the city says the 911 line is not overtaxed, and has cited stats showing that only 1 percent of the 500,000 calls it gets a year need to be forwarded to the mayor's 24-hour hot line.

Still, lines may sometimes get crossed.

Fort Hill resident Erika McLaughlin says one evening last month she called the hot line about an unfamiliar car blocking her driveway, only to be transferred to 911 and confused with someone who'd been assaulted and needed an ambulance for a head injury.

McLaughlin, a 26-year-old psychotherapist, says she saw a woman come on her own that night to move the car but added: ''I hope they found the person with the head injury."

ETA? Here, largely NA
In Baltimore, meanwhile, they've expanded 311 beyond the police to cover all of City Hall. When a complaint comes in, according to the city, a call-taker versed in the mechanics of government operations can fill out a work order on the spot; offer the caller a reasonable response time: 48 hours for a pothole, five days for a burned-out street light; issue a receipt number for the resident to track it; and hold department heads responsible.

In Boston, only calls to the catch-all 4500 that concern Inspectional Services Department issues are directly converted into work orders, according to Janine Coppola, who heads the Mayor's Office of Constitutent Services, which last year logged 38,808 calls to the 24-hour hot line. Other routine service requests, she says, have to be e-mailed to departments. Problem-solving ETAs are not offered to the citizenry. ''We don't really give specific times," says Coppola. And callers must trace their cases through names, addresses, and phones, not receipt numbers.

Allston resident Kim Malo says that she was pleased City Hall finally fixed a hinky pedestrian signal in her neighborhood, but was chagrined to find out officials said they had no documentation of her regular complaints.

''No record of the call means there's no record this has been an ongoing problem," says Malo, 48.

Baltimore says its system has been a boon on both the fix-it and financial fronts. While it cost $2.5 million to launch and $4.6 million a year to operate, officials say it has resulted in an overall savings since 2002 of $70 to $90 million. They cite a more efficient process that, for example, lets them weed out duplicate requests and not send multiple crews to clear the same dirty alley (estimated clean-up time: 21 days).

There, mayor 'on the hook'
''With 4,500 to 5,000 calls a day, we put the mayor on the hook for service delivery," says Elliot Schlanger, chief information officer of Baltimore, which in 2004 won a so-called ''Oscar" of municipal innovation award from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

The year before, one of those civic statues went to Chicago, where residents were schooled in the eminence of treys: ''Burning building -- call 911/Burning question -- call 311."

By analyzing all the incoming calls, officials there say, Chicago is better able to piece together patterns: Reports of dead birds helped departments determine which areas to spray for the West Nile virus. No-heat complaints from one year led officials to send out letters to landlords of those addresses the next, warning them to keep their apartments warm.

Pondering the uptick in 311 calls, from 2.8 million when it was initiated in 1999 to some 4 million last year, Chicago's director of 311 city services, Theodore O'Keefe, figures the city is doing something right.

''A lot of my corporate friends say it must be working if people are calling," says O'Keefe. ''If not, they wouldn't waste their time."

In New York City, officials say they can handle 311 calls 24/7 in 170 languages, from A to Z. Through a third-party vendor with worldwide contacts, according to a city spokesman, a person calling 311 can be part of a three-way conversation in real time with a city contact and someone who speaks everything from Arabic to Zulu.

On most days in Boston, Coppola says, the basic languages available to those who call up until midnight are English and Spanish, and sometimes Vietnamese and Italian. Beyond that, she says, the city can tap into the linguistic skills of the Office of New Bostonians, but that could require a later callback to the person calling in.

In Somerville -- where they beckon 311 phoners with the phrase ''One Call to City Hall" -- officials say they've handled more than 9,000 311 calls since its December start. Mayor Joseph Curtatone, his staffers say, welcomes the deluge. ''He's not hiding," said Sean Murphy, Somerville's director of constituent services. ''He wants to know what's going on."

Like graffiti, for instance, which officials say will now be removed, in most cases, within 24 hours; if it's gang scrawl, police photograph the image to help them hunt groups using the writings to mark turf.

Back in the Hub, Ben Birnbaum, 59, says he tried mightily to alert Boston City Hall to a neighborhood problem: a key streetlight out on Brainerd Road that was draping the area in darkness.

Birnbaum, a magazine editor who lives on the Brookline side of its border with Allston, says it took months before it was fixed last year, and he kept a scorecard of his contacts: 3 calls to the mayor's hot line; 2 calls to the Department of Public Works; 2 calls to the City Council; and 1 e-mail to the city.

Now, in the faceoff between 311 and 617-635-4500, Birnbaum says he has no favorite. ''I don't care what they call it," he says, ''as long as it works."

311 to the 911 rescue
From the US Department of Justice website:
On July 23, 1996, President Clinton issued a challenge to relieve the burden on the 9-1-1 emergency system experienced in many parts of the country.

A voluntary three-digit, non-emergency alternative, as user-friendly as 9-1-1, makes sense. Such a number frees up 9-1-1 lines for true emergencies, gives communities an easy way to reach local public services and enables them to work together on other important issues.

Clearly, this challenge was not issued in response to any ineffectiveness on the part of 9-1-1. In fact, the emergency system has been extraordinarily successful and saved the lives of many Americans. In some communities, however, it has become a victim of its own success.

In August 1996, the [department] formally requested that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reserve 3-1-1 for national non-emergency use. Very few three-digit numbers remained and none had been reserved for policing purposes. On October 1, 1996, Baltimore became the first city to have an operational, non-emergency number.

Ric Kahn can be reached at

Who needs 311?

Somerville's got it. Yeah, and New York, too. Should Boston get the 311 non-emergency information system, too? What about Cambridge and Brookline? Do you have any personal stories about trying to reach public officials for help or information? Message City Weekly at Please include your name, a daytime phone number, and your neighborhood or community. Responses may be edited for length and grammar.

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