Problems answered


A broken main recently had hot water spewing into the street near the Larchwood Garden Apartments, 82nd Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, cutting off usage of any hot water in the units. Sophie Crowell-Hunter, property manager for the apartment complex, called Philly 311, the city’s new non-emergency line, to address the problem.

Within a few hours of phoning the service, the water department arrived on the scene and resolved the issue, and even retuned over the course of the next three days to finish repairing the pipes.

"Basically if I had not called, it would have flooded Larchwood Garden Apartments and Korman Suites," Hunter said.

The agent she spoke with was very nice, asked for all the details and provided a confirmation number in case someone didn’t come out right away, Hunter added.

Prior to Dec. 31 launch of Philly 311, the property manager would have had to call the water department directly for assistance, which resulted in difficulty in locating the correct person to speak to and slower service, she said.

"I’m very happy because if I wouldn’t have called 311, I would have called all around the water department and it would have taken longer to get service, she said.

"Usually nobody got back to you the same day. You just had to keep calling and calling," she said adding that she often had to call City Council President Anna Verna’s office for proper assistance.

Since the incident, Hunter has sent information on 311 to all her tenants.

Philadelphia has joined many other cities including Baltimore, Chicago and Houston that have added a non-emergency line. While the telephone number is accessible 24/7, the call center is also available during normal business hours at City Hall’s Room 167.

"Cities like Houston, Chicago and Baltimore have been doing it for quite some time," said Councilman-at-large Jim Kenney, who headed the project and visited other cities that utilized the service. "Back in ’06, I recognized that this might be something good for Philadelphia."

While a resolution was instituted in October 2006, representatives from Baltimore and DeKalb County, Ga., spoke on their respective services prior to a December City Council meeting. Kenney said an ordinance was not necessary because the new administration agreed that it was a priority.

"It moved relatively quickly based on when we started talking about it," he said.

With a $2 million annual allotment to both Philly 311 and PhillyStat, the service tracking aspect, according to the fiscal year ’09 budget, the investment will make the government more effective and efficient, Kenney said. He added there was no increase in employment as current agents were transferred to the 311 call center from other departments.

"It’s really a management tool that will save money as opposed to wasting it," he said, adding the city will start to see its benefits in six months to a year.

Baltimore was the first city to implement a 311 number on Oct. 2, 1996 where it received one-third of the 911 calls before the FCC designated the number for non-emergency calls the following year, according to "3-1-1 for Philly," a report released by Kenney in April ’07. At first, Baltimore’s number was only designated for non-emergency police calls before city service calls were added in March 2002, said Lisa Allen, call center director of Baltimore’s 311 system, at a City Council meeting in December ’06.

The city did not return calls concerning their number prior to press time.

Although 911 is still in place for emergencies, 311 can take the load off 911 as a separate line for questions regarding directory assistance, information services, service requests, updates on special events and reporting non-emergencies such as noise complaints and abandoned cars. Since June, the performance management team has been compiling information from all city departments into the database, which will be updated to keep its information current.

Designated to improve the city’s customer service, each inquiry about directory assistance or for general information will ideally be answered on the spot. However, every City service request will be sent to the appropriate department and tracked by PhillyStat to individually evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency.

"Those service requests will get a tracking number like UPS and FedEx," Kenney said adding that callers can then follow up with the tracking number provided.

PhillyStat is also capable of linking requests instead of each similar request being taken care of separately.

"If you have 15 pothole requests, you can schedule them all in one day," Kenney said.