City’s 3-1-1 System Becomes a Life-Line for Residents with All Kinds of Questions

There’s no telling what kinds of questions might come over the phone lines or the online application for 3-1-1 workers during the COVID-19 crisis, but rest assured those operators are – as is often said in TV commercials – “standing by for your calls.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the advisories for so many of the City’s residents to stay home, has elicited many more calls to the 3-1-1 system each and every day, said Neighborhood Services chief Jerome Smith. It is the first widespread catastrophic event in the city where the modern 3-1-1 system is available, and Smith said it has been a life-line for so many people to hold onto during the crisis.

On Monday, after Gov. Charlie Baker announced his stay-at-home advisory, the call volumes spiked, which has been a pattern at the Center following any major announcement or press conference.

“We’re up to 2,200 calls already today (Monday) and it’s only 3 p.m.,” said Smith, who manages the Center. “We have put an increase in staffing for 3-1-1. We’re also transitioning some neighborhood liaisons to help out as well during off hours. We’re at an 84 percent service rate, which means around 80 percent of the time we’re returning or answering a call within 5 to 10 seconds.”

Mayor Martin Walsh has been big on telling residents to call 3-1-1 during the COVID-19 response for things other than emergencies, so that the 9-1-1 operators can be reserved for critical response if need be. By and large, the public has gotten the message.

“The most calls we’ve gotten during a normal busy period at 3-1-1 is 2,100 calls for 24 hours,” he said. “So having 2,200 calls by 3 p.m. is a good influx. It’s mostly people listening to the news and having questions and calling 3-1-1.”

Many people call about the symptoms they appear to have, and wonder if it’s consistent with COVID-19. Others want to know about whether they need to pay a City bill, and others want to know about getting birth certificates. There are questions for Public Works on normal things like trash, and for Boston Transportation as well. Others have called about the schools, including meal distribution sites and overall closures.

In addition, they get a lot of calls about things people cooped up at home simply see from outside their windows.

“Right now, it’s amazing we have a lot of eyes on the street and residents looking at what’s going on,” he said. “What I see in the calls is a lot of residents pointing out things their neighbors are doing. There are a lot of calls like that of people pointing out things people shouldn’t be doing like congregating. It’s funny when we tell everyone to use 3-1-1 and residents call about a lot of things. There are some interesting calls coming in.”

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