A Look at 311

Ask anyone what their favorite number is and why, and you’ll get as many different responses as people you ask. A favorite number for New Yorkers, at least in the phone-call-making department, is 311. Hundreds of millions of New Yorkers have called this number, and if you haven’t heard about it or called yet yourself, maybe you should.  

311 as an actual phone number to call began in October 1996, when the city of Baltimore, Maryland launched 311, the country’s first non-emergency governmental services call center. Intended to divert non-urgent community concerns from 911, which is reserved for emergencies, 311 is a central hub for residents to get answers to a variety of city services. Questions and concerns run the gamut, from landlords not heating their apartments properly to what streets are blocked off during a presidential visit.

The project was a huge success, and it took off across the country. 311 call centers now operate in almost all major US cities, several smaller US counties, and internationally in various forms and with varying phone numbers. A website for 311 in Akron, Ohio describes the service as follows: “Burning building? Call 911. Burning question? Call 311.”

The New York Debut
When the clock struck midnight on March 9, 2003, a customer in Jackson Heights called to report noise from a neighbor’s party, and NYC311 was officially in business. New York City now operates the largest 311 operation in North America, fielding calls from how to find a lost phone in a NYC taxi to the current date and time.

Why Call
The mission of NYC311 is to provide the public with quick, easy access to all NYC government services and information. The reasons to call are many. From public safety concerns to personal concerns, as long as it’s not an emergency, you can call 311. People call regarding issues in their neighborhoods- anything from noise ordinances to stray dogs to unkempt parks – as much as for personal issues – things like how to obtain official documents or what social services are available to them or even how to track down their lost phone in a taxi. If there is something you need help with, or something you feel you should report, the number to call is 311.

The employee training at NYC311 ensures that customers “speak with a polite, professional, and knowledgeable New Yorker when they need assistance.” So when you call to report anything from a housing violation to the fact that you smell maple syrup while walking to your car everyday, rest assured that you will speak with someone who is kind, takes you seriously, and is going to help you the best they can.  And also keep in mind that by calling, you’re being civically responsible: by calling in to report a pothole or a stray animal or after-hours construction, you’re playing a role in solving the problems you see in your own neighborhood.

Significant dates for NYC311
December 20, 2005: more than 240,000 calls were made on the first day of a transit strike, setting the record for calls in one day.

In May 2010, in honor of NYC311’s 100 millionth call – someone reporting an abandoned vehicle – Mayor Bloomberg visited the office and fielded a call himself. He said the system, which costs $46 million a year to run, “has truly revolutionized how people deal with government.”

Also in 2010, NYC311 was featured in the New York Times, “Insights from a Week as a 311 Operator in New York”, as well as Wired Magazine’s “What 100 Million Calls to 311 Reveal About New York.”

October 29, 2012: Four times the daily call volume is handled without interruption as Hurricane Sandy hits New York.

December 12, 2014: NYC311 was featured on NPR’s “This American Life.” For the call center that receives 55,000 calls a day, not all calls are typical, and not all have answers at the ready. Sometimes, operators have to improvise. Listen to the full episode here.

October 2017: NYC311 logged their three hundred eleven millionth, three hundred eleven thousandth, three hundred eleventh call.

Who knows why the number 311 was chosen. Maybe it has some kind of innate cultural relevance. It was, after all, a generic number used at the beginning of many a phone number in television and movies. From Mister Ed dialing the phone using a pencil in his mouth, to the 1979 horror flick When a Stranger Calls, to the 1984 film Ghostbusters, to the first episode of the 1980’s TV show A.L.F., all featured 311 as the area code in phone numbers shown on screen.  Maybe Baltimore took its hint from that random fact and the number just stuck.

What is known, as data confirms, is that a favored number for New Yorkers is, indeed, 311. Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, translated in 175 languages, available for those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-impaired, by hundreds of millions of New Yorkers since its inception in 2003, this number is called. All for good reason, and with no sign of letting up, 311 will continue to be called for many years to come.

Header Image Courtesy of 311’s Facebook Page.

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