Solutions: When residents needed help, call centers responded

An empty desk is shown in the training center at the City of Atlanta 911 Communications Center in Atlanta, Ga. on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
An empty desk is shown in the training center at the City of Atlanta 911 Communications Center in Atlanta, Ga. on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

AROUND THE COUNTRY

When a streetlight is out or trash pickup missed, residents often turn to their city’s call center to report the problem.

But municipal call centers took on elevated importance during the coronavirus pandemic as cities expanded their role, offering new services like COVID-19 vaccine appointment bookings or hotlines to help people understand financial assistance programs.

While some municipal governments struggled with vaccine management software, New Orleans officials opted to integrate appointment bookings into their existing 311 call center platform.

The result was a 24-hour hotline that residents could call to schedule vaccine appointments, file complaints about businesses flouting coronavirus restrictions, or to connect residents with quarantine resources such as food delivery.

When the pandemic hit, officials in Buffalo, New York, anticipated that residents would need more information from local governments. The city transitioned its 311 call center staff to remote work in under a week so that there would be no interruption of communication services when workers stopped reporting to offices in city hall because of the risk of infection.

Maryland, too, saw a huge demand for information through its health department-run GoVAX call center. Call takers were able to schedule more than 460,000 vaccine appointments, including more than 5,000 vaccine referrals for homebound residents.

And California started a rent relief hotline where residents could get information about applying for emergency rental assistance.

Back in New Orleans, the city responded to the increased demand by expanding 311 services through an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot that residents could text with service requests and other questions.

Call takers expanded their role by proactively checking in on residents who tested positive for COVID-19 to offer additional services or assistance.

While millennials and younger residents were more likely to access city services online or through the chatbot or online, the call center was a lifeline to older residents and those without internet access.

“In pre-COVID days, if you wanted something done in city government, you had to get up and go to that city agency,” said Tyrell Morris, executive director of the Orleans Parish Communication District, which oversees the city’s 311 and 911 call centers.

Now, he envisions a scenario in which residents call the city’s 311 center and call-takers can see that resident’s interaction with the city – whether it’s visits to a library or recreation center or prior service request calls.

Andrea Noble writes for Route 50, which focuses on how state and local governments are using technology to solve big problems. This story is republished through the Solutions Journalism Network.