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by Erica Pearson, Jan 13, 2003
 

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The author Calvin Trillin has said that while Eskimos have 58 words for snow, New Yorkers have just two ways to express approval -- "not so bad" and "it could be worse" -- and about 70 words for complaint.

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Until very recently, many of those words were aimed at one man, a once-obscure bureaucrat with a name that is easy to complain about - Fletcher Vredenburgh. Vredenburgh was the director of the Mayor's Action Center, which for many years has been the first place that New Yorkers were told to call when they had complaints about noisy neighbors, perilous potholes, under-heated apartments, leaky fire hydrants, and burnt-out traffic lights. Perhaps burnt-out a bit himself, Fletcher Vredenburgh apparently had built up a great store of his own complaints, about his job. In a recent rant on an Internet message board, he labeled his callers "dumb" and "whining," and said their complaints were driving him to suicide. After the papers reported his comments, Fletcher Vrendenburgh was forced to resign.

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There are eight million people in the naked city, and eight million complaints. That is how many come into the city's 40 different hotlines every year. But this soon will change. The number is expected to double. That is because it will soon become much easier for New Yorkers to complain, with just one phone number to dial for every non-emergency -- 311.

The mayor's rule for remembering which three-digit number to call is "911 for emergencies, 311 for everything else." But what is an emergency exactly?

Call 911 if:
• There is a fire.

• You feel your life is threatened.

• You witness a break-in, shooting or other crime in progress.

• You see a car accident.

• Someone is having a heart attack or other health emergency.

Call 311 if:
• Your power goes out.

• You see a leaky fire hydrant.

• You want to report lost or stolen property.

• You want to complain about construction noise.

• It is winter and your landlord has not turned on the heat.

• You are worried your apartment has lead paint.

"911 for emergencies, 311 for everything else," Mayor Michael Bloomberg is fond of repeating. He has said he hopes that this is his legacy to the city.

The new non-emergency number will certainly give New Yorkers a faster and easier way to report complaints. But some say that all the complaining is happening not because New Yorkers love to complain, but because nothing ever gets fixed. They wonder whether 311 will actually solve people's problems any more quickly when it is put into operation sometime within the next few weeks (The mayor is being coy about exactly when it will be ready.)

"It's going to get people faster to city agencies," said Stuart Desmond, from the office of the Public Advocate. "The challenge will be to have the agencies respond."

The 411 On 311:

311 will combine the now director-less Mayor's Action Center with the city's 40 other non-emergency hotlines, which currently fill the phone book's 11 pages of city government listings.

Bloomberg reportedly will launch the new 311 call center, located on the upper floors of a Maiden Lane office building, when he gives his state-of-the-city address. From then on, a live person will answer each call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At first, the only thing the operators will be able to do is transfer the call to the city agency in charge of fixing the particular problem. But once the program is fully up and running, operators will also be able to answer questions and offer help for such complaint-inducing tasks as filling out tax forms.

The 311 center will also coordinate the complaints and requests that come in through the city's web site, email and fax machines. Officials have said operators will give assistance in dozens of languages.

The new call center will also be equipped with technology to make agencies more accountable. Each of the requests will be documented so that there is a record of how well and how quickly city agencies respond. Satellite technology will give the operators information about the location that each person is calling from, so that the 311 center could create a map of New Yorkers' complaints.

The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications and ten other city agencies have been working to prepare to bring 311 live. Staff from city agencies, including police, buildings, transportation and sanitation, are moving into the 311 center.

Getting A Response:

311 will definitely make it easier to complain. But will agencies actually respond better? New York City bicycle advocate John Kaehny doesn't think that 311 will necessarily make a difference in how well city roads are maintained. His organization, Transportation Alternatives, reports about 500 potholes and other biking hazards each year to the Department of Transportation. It may take reporting a single problem seven times before it is fixed, said Kaehny: "Each pothole is kind of like its own problem child."

Part of the problem, Kaehny said, is that the transportation department "simply does not have the manpower to do their job." And no matter how easy 311 makes it for people to report problems, city agencies facing yet another round of budget cuts will need to stretch their resources even thinner.

Multiple visits by city inspectors are often needed in order to get businesses or landlords to fix problems. "The way New York works," said Kaehny, "is that businesses just ignore summonses, and so agencies need to have the staff to enforce quality of life violations. New York City has notoriously few inspectors."

The Metropolitan Council on Housing has long complained that the too few inspectors at the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development are not able to force landlords to make needed repairs in apartments with problems like no heat or a broken elevator.

One of the city's broken elevators was fixed only after enlisting local politicians and the media. The residents of a building in Washington Heights became frustrated last summer when their elevator kept breaking down. They would complain to their landlord, and he would call in someone to fix the elevator. But he didn't order the major repairs the elevator needed, and within hours it would be out of service once again. A disabled tenant who lived on the top floor wasn't able to leave her apartment for days at a time. The residents eventually called the public advocate's ombudsman's unit, and the elevator was overhauled only after Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum made a televised visit to the building.

While the response to the elevator problem may not be typical, many people who have not been able to get a response from city agencies often do turn to the public advocate and other local politicians. Councilmember Leroy Comrie, who represents St. Albans, Queens estimates that his office receives some 400 complaints a week - gripes about everything from trash removal to late buses to unfair parking tickets. "In the end, people are still looking for a human to help them, not just a computer," said Comrie. "My job is to take their complaint and put some forceful, passionate advocacy behind it to ensure that the complaint is addressed."

Coordinating The Bigger Problems

City Councilmember Gail Brewer said that when she noticed a burnt-out "Don't Walk " sign while crossing the street recently, she thought to herself, "Hmmm, soon I will be able to just call 311 to report this." But while Brewer looks forward to being able to dial 311 for common problems, she wonders about how well the new program will be able to help people with more complicated concerns.

"Will the people answering the phones be well enough trained to figure out how to solve people's problems?" Brewer asked. She and others are also worried that information about different calls made to 311 will not be shared with the community boards. Community board chairs and district managers often have the sort of neighborhood know-how that can be vital in solving a trickier city issue, Brewer said. "I am sure they are keeping records internally," said Brewer. "If it is public information to the agencies it should be public information to the community boards too."

The mayor has not said whether this information will be shared, and spokesperson Jonathan Werbell said that this and other details of the 311 program will not be made public until after the new number is launched. "Nobody has talked to us about it," said Madeline Wils, chair of Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan.

But some say that not being in the 311 loop may not be so bad. "We're inundated with complaints anyway, any help we get is fine," said George Delis, district manager of Community Board 1 in Astoria, Queens. He added that the community board office gets about 100 calls a day, often because residents are not able to get through to the local police precinct.

Costs And Benefits

The mayor carefully and quietly shepherded the $13.1 million 311 center through last summer's series of budget cuts. Some city council members complained that the program's cost is nearly half the amount of money that the city is saving by suspending plastic and glass recycling. But the mayor has said that in the end, costs will be absorbed because the new number will help the city reduce operating costs and be more efficient.

Other cities have launched 311 in part to take away some of the burden from flooded 911 call centers. While this is an advantage for New York City, where over 10 million 911 calls are made each year, Bloomberg has said that relieving 911 isn't the main reason for setting up 311.

911, 411, 311

Uniform phone numbers like 911 for emergencies, 411 for information and now 311 all came about during the past three decades. 911 was developed in 1967, when President Lyndon B. Johnson's law enforcement commission recommended that the country set aside a single number for people to call in an emergency. The first 911 system was implemented in rural Haleyville, Alabama, in 1968, the same year it was installed in New York City. Soon 911 numbers were installed in cities and counties across the United States. In the 1980s, 911 technology improved so that operators automatically learned the location where a call was made.

In 1996, the number of 911 calls across the country had climbed to reach an average of 268,000 per day. Unfortunately, many of the calls -- as much as 90 percent in some places -- were from people who were not in an emergency at all. They just didn't know what number to call, and dialed one they did remember, 911. To fix this problem, the federal Department of Justice seven years ago set aside a new number for non-emergency calls: 311.

Baltimore was the first to implement 311, in October 1996. Forty-two percent of 911 calls went to 311 instead. At least 11 other cities have followed, including Chicago and Washington, DC. An Austin, Texas police department spokesperson called 311 a "miracle".

But after Baltimore's 311 had been in full operation for nearly a year, residents told the Baltimore Sun that despite the new phone number, it took eight months of repeated calls before the city removed a derelict minivan, and weeks before a burst pipe that was flooding nearby basements was fixed.

Los Angeles, the biggest city so far to implement 311, made the new number live on November 7 of last year with a rather quiet launch. L.A. is waiting a few more months -- until the bugs are sure to be worked out -- before beginning a massive advertising campaign telling residents about the new "one call to city hall" number. Even so, the city has already received 20 percent more calls to 311 than were coming in to the city hotline, said Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Doane Liu. At the same time, there has been a five percent decrease in 911 calls. "We are still hiring and training call center operators," said Liu, "gearing up for doubling the amount of calls to 311."

But Liu's major concern is making sure people's requests get answered. "The biggest challenge, and especially in today's tough budgets, is allocating enough resources to the city agencies so that they can respond to the service requests," said Liu. "We are making it easier for people to talk to us, so we'd better be ready to listen."


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