12 Secrets of 311 Operators

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It may have lower stakes and fewer life-threatening emergencies than its big sister 911, but for the 20,870,131 New Yorkers who called 311 in 2014, it’s no less vital. In New York City’s 311 call centers, over 350 employees work tirelessly around the clock (you can reach a representative 24-7-365) to answer residents’ burning questions about everything from alternate side parking to a lack of heat in their homes to unwanted animal guests. We spoke with past and present 311 employees to get the 411 on one of the city’s greatest resources.

1. 311 call center representatives (CCRs) spend months training to take your calls.

Once hired (either by passing a civil service exam or participating in CUNY’s collaborative project with 311), CCRs spend four to 10 weeks learning the ropes. They don’t take calls during this time, but become masters of the vast database of New York City-approved resources at their disposal. CCRs use keywords to search the system, called Siebel, for ways to help direct callers to the departments that can best address their needs. As 311 Communications Director Shaleem Thompson told us, “We don’t offer advice to our customers. All the information we provide are approved content from City Agencies.”

During training, the CCRs also learn proper telephone etiquette, protocol, and what to do if the call takes a turn for the strange or serious.

2. There’s an “escalation line” for when things get out of hand.

A former 311 employee, who worked as a CCR for a year and a half, says that when calls venture into uncharted territory, they are patched through to what’s known as the “escalation line.” A common reason a CCR would ask the escalation line to take over is a lewd or “inappropriate” overture from the caller. In one instance, the former 311 CCR explains, a man called to say that his neighbors were having sex, and he could hear them through his apartment’s thin walls. “And he starts groaning and it’s just becoming clear what’s happening. And he’s like, ‘Will you stay on the line with me?’” the CCR says. “And I was like, ‘Escalation line!’ I hit the extension and patched them through.”

3. There are 58 different things you can say that will get you transferred to 911.

If a 311 CCR suspects an actual emergency, he or she is required to patch the caller through to 911. The service provides its representatives with a list of 58 items that, if mentioned by the caller, precipitate a mandatory transfer to 911. While some of the mandatory transfer items seem commonsensical (a report of abuse or harassment, an injury, or a suspected gas leak), some are a bit more head-scratching. Mentioning a “squeegee in progress,” “ticket scalping,” or “foul odor from unknown source” will get you patched through to 911.

Once a 311 CCR connects with 911, he or she remains on the line for the entirety of the call, acting as a witness as well as being available to answer any questions the 911 operator may have.

4. More calls come from Brooklyn than any other borough.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, New York City’s most populated borough is responsible for the most calls to 311, claiming 31 percent of calls in 2014. Falling in line behind are Queens (23.3 percent), Manhattan (21.9 percent), the Bronx (18.4 percent), and Staten Island (5.4 percent).

5. CCRs take thousands of calls each day.

While 311 averages 50,000 calls a day, the number varies greatly depending on the weather, holidays, and service announcements, Thompson says. The 2014 record for most calls in a single day is 239,203. The most calls handled by a single representative in 2014 is a staggering 22,809.

6. Questions about alternate side parking dominate the phone lines.

Call center representatives agree that New Yorkers are more baffled by the complexities of alternate side parking than any other topic. Tahiem Tomlin, a call center rep for almost two years, says that other FAQs vary by season, with the winter being dominated by heating complaints and tax questions. Callers also often have questions about how to deal with parking tickets and what certain street signs mean. Unfortunately, the former 311 representative points out, CCRs aren’t allowed to give guidance on these topics; they’re not covered in the Siebel computer system.

7. Call center reps are scored on their call-taking abilities.

The CCRs have weekly review sessions with their supervisors, during which their calls are given scores based on quality and effectiveness as well as following protocol. Representatives gain points for things like using standard language (“Thank you for calling 311”), providing the correct information, handling the call in a timely manner, speaking with a courteous tone, and offering the 311 website. Call center reps also lose points for infractions or, if the mistake is deemed serious enough—like being rude, failing to transfer to 911, or providing information not found in the Siebel system—they can “fail a call.”

8. CCRs must remain professional at all times.

“I had a call come in, and it was from my dad,” Angelique Pantoja, a CCR for nearly five years, says. “I introduced myself and he says that he’s looking for bus and subway information. It took him a minute for him to realize it was my name, and he goes, ‘Is this Angelique? Is this my daughter?’ I responded by saying, ‘Sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about’ and gave him the information he wanted.”

9. The urban legends are true: A call to 311 proved there really are crocodiles in New York City.

Pantoja remembers one of the most surprising calls she’s ever gotten: A caller who claimed to have found a crocodile in her garage. “It was very interesting because I wasn’t sure if she meant a real crocodile or a fake one, or a little lizard and perhaps she was being a little dramatic,” Pantoja says. “But they confirmed that it was a real crocodile. They were doing something in their basement, and they said something moved.”

10. Call center reps save lives ...

While all emergencies are ultimately transferred to 911, the 311 call center reps are often the first point of contact for people reporting a crime or injury. “I helped break up a child prostitution ring operating out of Brooklyn and transferred the call to 911,” the former CCR we spoke with said. “The customer had called about two girls, and both were under 12 years old. The caller said the mother was selling her daughters to make ends meet.”

11. ... And truly want to help.

While calling 311 can at times be frustrating—the caller must sit through a standard introduction (which, we now know, earns the CCR points), the CCR is prohibited from providing answers to many questions, and the caller may ultimately be transferred to an unresponsive department—residents of New York can take solace in the fact that most CCRs sincerely want to help. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for example, CCRs worked long shifts in order to make sure New Yorkers had someone to call. With public transportation suspended for days, many representatives were driven to work in Department of Corrections busses—the kinds usually used to transport prisoners—after walking miles to the nearest bus stop.

“Even these hardened veterans, these city veterans who have been doing it for 20, 30 years, even they care,” a former representative says. “I think a lot of call takers just want the city to be able to expand its resources and help people in a more efficient way.”

12. Call center reps are not allowed to hang up the phone.

The former representative tells us that some of her most rewarding moments at 311 were spent speaking with people, often elderly, who were just looking for a friendly voice. “Sometimes they’ll just tell you about their life, and after that you’ll feel like you helped them unload a little bit.” she says. “Life is so hard in the city. I think people just like having some kind of 24-hour line where they can call and hear a human voice.”