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311 hotline handles weird and routine 50,000 calls a day


df Credit: RJ Mickelson

The agitated voice on the line was ticked off that he had no heat or hot water in his Brooklyn apartment. Sherri Hill – a New York City 311 operator – kept her cool.

“Do I have to stand in a blanket?” he fumed.

The exchange, which ended with the promise of an inspector following up, is among the average 50,000 calls received daily on the city’s 311 hotline – a first point of contact for residents in need of the city’s help.

Since launching in March 2003, the service has become the largest of its kind in the country, handling 110 million calls to date in 180 languages, officials told amNewYork during a behind-the-scene tour.

The nerve center, located on 59 Maiden Lane in Lower Manhattan, is a bustling office with more than 290 operators. Running the operation 24/7 costs $43 million a year, officials said.

Major events, such as snowstorms, result in a spike in inquiries, said Joe Morrisroe, 311’s executive director.

For operators, the job requires the ability to multitask, think quickly and know how government ticks. Calls can range from what parking rules are in effect to reporting a pothole.

About 40 percent of calls answered by operators are resolved immediately; others are handled with a service request or rerouted to another agency.

Hill, an operator for more than a year, said she likes helping people. Still, there are times she has to “get into character.”

Her wackiest call: A driver wanted to report a UFO.

“It was round and there were lights. But you know, a couple of weeks later, there was the news about a UFO sighting (in Chelsea),” she said.

And then there are callers who don’t really want anything. On Sept. 11 last year, a woman who lost her son in the attacks just needed to talk.

“She did have a question: ‘How can I mourn my son when I don’t have his body?’” Hill recalled. “I ended up crying with her.”

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Did you know?

The city’s 311 hotline has a companion website: Users can file and check the status of a complaint immediately. There also is a free 311 iPhone app.

Whacky 311 questions:

• Can I claim my dog on my income taxes?

• Who won “American Idol?”

• What can be done about my neighbor waving to everyone on the block?

• Can you check to see whether my boyfriend is married?

Top 3 record call days:

269,001 on Feb. 25, 2010: record snowstorms
241,000 on Dec. 20, 2005: first day of NYC transit strike
188,000 on Aug. 14, 2003: Northeast blackout


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