Long hours, short sleep, phones ringing: Inside Phila.'s 311 center

Morris Hobson answers calls in the 311 call center at City Hall.
Morris Hobson answers calls in the 311 call center at City Hall.
Posted: January 24, 2014

When Jamie Timmons looked out her window Tuesday morning and saw snow starting to accumulate on the street, she knew to take an overnight bag to work.

Good thing she did.

As a 311 call agent for the City of Philadelphia, Timmons and her colleagues were about to work round the clock from 8 a.m. Tuesday through Wednesday afternoon or even to midnight, taking calls on everything from trash pickup to requests for plowing and salting on city streets.

The 26-person crew, tucked inside a first-floor office in City Hall, received the city "mandate" at 11 a.m. Tuesday that it would be going into an emergency 24/7 operation. The 311 center normally operates between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

The magic word was mandate. For the 311 staff, it means long hours, short sleep, fast food, and overnight bags at the ready - all as part of trying to be what one staffer called a "comfort zone" for the city's residents.

"When you sign on, you know it's an essential job," Timmons said, referring to the requirement that 311 employees work around the clock during emergencies - such as storms or an earthquake.

Most of the employees at the 311 center, which opened Dec. 31, 2008, are used to the drill by now. They've operated on a 24/7 schedule several times in recent years, including for Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. Many, like Timmons, keep an overnight bag packed.

The city booked rooms at the Courtyard Marriott across from City Hall so that workers could catch naps and shower during designated four-hour breaks. But hardly any of them slept more than an hour, the call agents said Wednesday.

"It's fun, though," Myisha Upshur said between taking calls.

When the call volume is high as it was all day Tuesday, the hours fly by, Morris Hobson said. Hobson was also monitoring the 311 Twitter handle - @Philly311 - for complaints and requests for service.

The center is designed to provide one-stop shopping for people needing city services. The agents can transfer callers to the appropriate department or have their complaint, such as an unplowed street, taken down and forwarded via the city's computer system to the Streets Department.

Sometimes, the 311 agents will even look up a phone number - such as the nearest liquor store, for the man who called Wednesday inquiring if liquor stores were open during the storm.

The camaraderie could be sensed in Room 167 of City Hall as the employees joked about not knowing what time or day it was, and how they wished they had real food.

"I gain 20 pounds whenever we get a mandate just because of what's open," Timmons said.

Their limited options for this storm included 7-Eleven, Dunkin' Donuts, and Walgreens.

"I had a pretzel for dinner last night, and that wasn't doing it," Amanda Loonstyn said. On Wednesday morning, she chased after the manager of the Subway store across the street from City Hall to see if the sandwich shop was opening. It was.

On Tuesday, the 311 center received 5,389 calls, compared with its typical daily volume of about 2,500. By 6 p.m., Wednesday's total was 5,813 calls and counting. The agents mostly informed people about timetables for trash pickup and snow plowing, or transferred them to other government offices.

During the peak of the snowstorm Tuesday, lines were so jammed that some callers waited more than an hour to get on the line with someone. The 311 center keeps score - there's an electronic ticker on the wall that shows the waiting times and the number of calls on hold.

And even then, sometimes a 311 agent can't be of much help.

Loonstyn received a call from a man asking for his block to be plowed because he needed the street to be clear in case an ambulance was needed.

His son is on life support, the man told Loonstyn.

"It tugged at my heartstrings for a bit," Loonstyn recalled Wednesday. "I had to tell him to call six hours later."

The rule is, 311 operators can't forward salting and plowing requests to the Streets Department until six hours after the snow has stopped, Loonstyn explained.

Then there are the more bizarre calls, even amid snowstorms - such as the woman who called Wednesday asking if it was illegal for a man she'd had sex with to not tell her he had AIDS.

Loonstyn offered to transfer her to the woman's police district or the health department.

Loonstyn said that although she didn't go to school to be a therapist, she sometimes feels like one in her 311 job.

Some operators enjoy that role, even when fielding lesser questions, such as when the city's weather-weary residents should next put out their trash.

"You hope to be that comfort zone for them," Upshur said, "like, 'All right, we got you.' "




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