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by Peter Moskos

January 13, 2015

311 is a Joke

When 311 is introduced for non-emergency calls, there's always talk about how the new 311 system will ease pressure on the 911 system. That never happens (but "hope springs eternal...").

I can't actually find the 911 numbers, but I know there are more 911 calls now than in 2003, when 311 was introduced here in NYC. (I know because 911 calls always go up).

But what's amazing is how much 311 calls have gone up. Whether this is good or bad is debatable. But it's certainly noteworthy and does cost money.

The 311 system in NYC went live in March 2003. There were 8,383 calls a day average: "As many as 32,023 callers a day"! (Plus $25 million in start up costs plus $27 million-a-year operation.)

Six year later (2010) the system was taking 68,000 calls a day (more than twice as much as the maximum load when the system was introduced).

In 2014, New Yorkers used the 311 system 28 million times! (16% higher than 2011) I had to do the math, but that's 77,000 times a day.

311 call volume will increase. As will 911 call volume. It is written. And maybe increased call volume can increase forever -- or maybe it's a good thing -- but let's not fool ourselves into thinking anything will decrease 911 calls but going back on the promise of unlimited free supply of police services

And kind of related -- and certainly amusing -- in 2012 38% of 911 calls in NYC (not 311) were inadvertent. 10.4 million 911 calls in 2010. Of those, 4 million were "butt calls." I have to assume that these were not handed to patrol officers. But when I was a cop in 2000 (cell phones were just up and coming), 6% of all calls were "911 no voice." And we had to respond to all of them.


David Woycechowsky said...

I am not usually a big proponent of pilice departments educating the public, but a good campaign about when to use 911 and when to use 311 would be a good thing.

When I am visiting a city, I never know whether it has 311 or not. I am not sure I even have a full idea of when to use 311. Let's say I manage a donut shop and a customer is lingering too long after I ask him to leave. Is that 911 or 311? Let's say I am walking in Baltimore and some young men start following me in a somewhat menacing way. Is that 911 or 311?

To the extent that 311 calls are made INSTEAD of 911 calls, 311 should save money. To the extent that 311 calls are made in situations where no 911 call would be made, then 311 costs money.

Adam said...

Do 311 and 911 calls actually go to separate operators? I mean, are there designated operators who wait for 911 calls and will sit and twiddle their thumbs even if the 311 calls are backed up? How does it work in NYC? Because in Baltimore, I'm pretty sure they're all lumped together, which nearly defeats the purpose. If some of the operators are on 311 calls, and suddenly there's a flurry of 911 calls (after a shooting, for example), you have 911-callers getting busy signals. I once got five consecutive busy signals trying to call 911 in Baltimore (though that was an unusual situation).

Peter, if you can believe it, BPD still dispatches "911 no voice" calls, but the officers just code them "David-No" and don't actually drive to the cell tower--because, well, that would be stupid. Why they continue to dispatch them at all is a mystery to me.

Jonathan said...

How many of those NYC 311 calls were just to find out whether alternate-side parking was in effect?

Anonymous said...

I've been retired for a year but the last time I ran the numbers, 10% of my agency's dispatched calls were for 911 "open line" or hangup calls from cell phones. The vast majority are disposed of as "information only." Although the system is supposed to locate cell phones within 100 meters, many of these calls are dispatched as being within many hundreds, or even thousands, of meters of the given location. Since the regional 911 center is paid based on the number of calls they dispatch they have no incentive to consider this a problem.

Moskos said...

In New York you're supposed to call 311 for anything and everything. So if that's the goal, the more calls the better, I suppose.

But we need to debase ourselves of the idea that somehow it will result in fewer 911 calls.

Generally 911 and 311 calls are answered by different operators. At least in Baltimore and here in NYC. (Maybe there's crossover if one is overwhelmed.)

In Baltimore, you were (are?) more likely to get an actually police officer (on light duty) answering 311. None of the 911 operators were cops. That way the police officer can actually take a police report and not dispatch a call. But in Baltimore 311 was set up for "non-emergency" police calls. In New York 311 is set up for general information and for all contacts with all city agencies.

Moskos said...

And the 311 recording you get in NYC *before* a person answers the phone always covers alternative-side parking rules!

There's a lot of recorded babble, like a minute or 3, before someone will answer the phone.

Hmm, let's see how much. Deal 311: 2:50:15.
"Parking rules are in effect."
"To continue in english..."
"To make an appointment for ID NYC..."
2:51:30 I get an automated voice prompt asking me to say what I want. (I always call that Julie, from Amtrak. She gets around).
I hung up.

Moskos said...

The other reason 311 doesn't save money is even if it does take calls away from 911, somebody still has to answer the phone. The savings are so little: the differential between what 311 and 911 operators are paid. (and neither is paid very much.)

But again, in NYC, 311 was set up as city service much more than a way to reduce 911 calls.

Moskos said...

You know, I love the fact that Baltimore still dispatches 911 no voice from cell phones! It's traditions like that -- unencumbered by reality -- that really keep us in touch with our history!

It's like how after 9/11, Sector 2 had a detail to guard the train tracks (at Central or Caroline and Orleans?). A patrol car sat there for months. The train tracks had been removed decades earlier.

Moskos said...

Boy, anonymous, one thing you do not want -- since the goal should be to reduce useless calls -- is a dispatch center paid by volume of dispatched calls.

Pay them more for every call they don't dispatch!

campbell said...

You know, I love the fact that Baltimore still dispatches 911 no voice from cell phones!

We still do it out here as well. I wonder if any agencies have outright decided to not respond to those.

Moskos said...

"175 years of tradition unencumbered by progress!"