By GINA MARIE GREENWALD
Hundreds of cubicles equipped with double Dell computer screens are scattered about New York City’s 311 call center, idling as representatives begin to take their seats and plug in their headsets. A glance at the call center electronic board above the aisle gives each of them all the live information they need while anticipating the start of their shifts: calls that are waiting, service level, and the types of calls that they should expect. The numbers begin to blink, and one by one representatives can be heard echoing the same fourteen word phrase that starts every phone conversation, “Thank you for calling 311, my name is_____, How may I help you?”
NYC 311 is New York City’s hub for government information and non-emergency services that was established by Mayor Bloomberg in 2001, in order to give the public access to public information with hopes of giving 911 a reprieve from non-emergency callers. Easily accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by phone, text, skype, social media websites such as Facebook and through their cellphone app, the center enables New Yorkers to get information whether it is regarding their a problem in their apartment, with their car, a lost animal and a plethora of other situations that affect the five boroughs of NYC. Assistance is available in over 100 languages.
“Whether you’re a resident, business owner, or visitor, help is just a click, text or call away,” proclaims the 311 website. But many New Yorkers are not aware of the information they have at their disposal, regardless of the many ads hung in the subway cars encouraging them to call.
On average, at least 16,000 or more calls are directed to one of the two 311 call center locations in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn during one eight hour shift. These calls can range from anything such as checking how many parking tickets a vehicle has, to figuring out why property taxes were so high this month or simply how to get to the Statue of Liberty. Although the number of calls received each day may seem high, there are still many New Yorker’s or tourists who are not aware of the assistance they can get from 311.
Mark Mazella, a full-time call taker, has been working in the Manhattan office for over 8 years. According to Mazella, he understands the confusion that many New Yorkers have when it comes to calling 311. Mazella went on to explain, “Often, many people will call us and start off the conversation with ‘I don’t know if you are the right person to be calling about this….’ and this is the problem. People don’t know they can call us for help, because they think no one is willing to help them. We can and will try to help them to the best of our ability, and if we can’t, we will try to direct them to somebody who can.”
The 311 call center representatives assist customers by utilizing numerous specialized computer programs called Seibel that were created to access information that was given to the center by various NYC agencies such as Department of Buildings, New York City Housing Authority, Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and countless other agencies. This information is often broken down into various “services” which can be found when the representative enters certain keywords that the caller has mentioned during their conversation, such as “housing” or “parking tickets.”
If information is requested that is not included in the multiple services that are in the system, call representatives may be able to either transfer callers over to another agency for assistance, send a request to that particular agency, or simply direct the caller to the appropriate person for additional help. They also have holiday information that pertains to street closures or parades that may appear for a week or so before it is disabled.
Although 311 is a non-emergency line, representatives do have the capability to connect a caller, if it turns out to be an emergency, to a 911 call representative for help. Mazella explains this further, “Sometimes people will call thinking their situation isn’t an emergency; there are people that are over considerate and don’t want to bother 911 because they think they smell gas, although they should. Then there are people who will call 911 for things that 311 can help with, such as a sewer backup situation, or broken streetlights; in such cases, 911 will refer them to call us.”
Mazella, who has been a call center representative for eight years, was required to take a city civil service exam and complete a month worth of training in order to get employment by the city. However, City University of New York (CUNY) has established a program called The 311 Project that employs college students to work at the Manhattan office as call center representatives, after they have gone through multiple interviews and a month of training.
On one date in late April, the 311 call center had received 15,503 phone calls which were handled by their tier one call handlers; these tier one call representatives are the front lines of the 311 call center. Once they have spoken to this representative, the caller will either have completed their call with the necessary information or assistance, or they will be directed to a specialist whom will further assist them. Of the 15,503 phone calls, which took an average of 268 seconds to complete, the most popular service provided to New Yorkers was requests for apartment maintenance complaints.
Raymond Camacho, a CUNY call representative who has been working with the Manhattan call center for over two years, said that “working for a city agency that services the public really makes you think about how much useful information there is out there that people don’t know about. We have so many services, so many resources, whether you are homeless and need somewhere to go, or if you just wanted to start a business or need some financial debt help to make sure you don’t lose your home,” he said. “You can call us and we can tell you exactly what you need to do. It’s satisfying to know I can make a difference just by answering the phone. If you see a pothole or a streetlight, we can let someone know and get it fixed. I even call sometimes.”