Almost all phone users are familiar with 911, the nationwide emergency number that can place you in contact with police, fire departments, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders. Most people are also aware of 411, which you can dial to find out the numbers for individuals and businesses who are listed in a variety of phone directories. However, fewer people are aware of the 311 and how it can help connect you to a wealth of information and resources related to your local government and community.
Unlike 911 and 411, 311 is not a nationwide program, so the information and help available to a 311 caller may vary dramatically by area. However, 311 is designated as a non-emergency number to help connect the caller to various local resources in the areas that have 311 service. The greater the community resources, the more information that 311 can provide. In addition, unlike 911 and 411, it is possible to access the 311 number for a certain area by calling a local number.
The types of calls that might be handled through a city’s 311 service include: reporting potholes or sinkholes, reporting non-emergency crimes like stolen vehicles, contacting animal control, reporting code violations, making noise complaints, and contacting the city’s parking enforcement department. However, not all municipalities have the same services, and 311 is tailored to offer the services that are in the highest demand for each individual area.
Because what is available on a 311 phone call varies so dramatically from area to area, the best way to understand the scope of services available on a 311 call is to look at the specific 311 program for your city. Some areas may offer limited services, while others may be comprehensive. For example, the city of Houston, Texas has an extremely well developed 311 system. They bill it as the city’s go-to for non-emergency calls. It contains a departmental directory that allows people to connect with non-emergency city services. In addition, the city’s 311 system allows people to request non-emergency services. The system has a dual-means of operation; much of it is automated, allowing people to easily select self-service operations without having to wait for an operator, but it is also staffed 24/7, so that callers have access to help from an operator.
The purpose of 311 is to quickly connect users to the services that are most frequently used and requested. A big city’s 311 service may have 100 or more options for services, but not all desired services can be reached through a city’s 311 service. However, the operators who answer the 311 calls can often tell callers how to find and access the appropriate information or services.
Furthermore, many cities also operate 311 web pages, where citizens can access the same services that they could access by dialing 311. The web addresses for these pages can vary, but tend to include the city name, 311, and an .org address. The websites for 311 in some of the largest cities in the U.S. are: 311 City of New York; City of Chicago 311 Services; City of Houston, Texas 311; and Los Angeles MyLA 311. Some cities also have 311 apps that allow users to request services directly from their mobile devices.
A visit to a 311 web page reveals a number of options. Some of the options are information only; they may provide information to the user at that site or they may link the user directly to departments that can provide information. Other options are linked to online service requests. It is important to note that not all service options are listed online; if you have a service request that is not available at your city’s 311 website, you may want to call 311 and see if you can make the service request via telephone.
If you are placing a service request via 311, whether online or on the phone, you will need some information to file your request. Generally, this information will include your contact information as well as the address for the service request. However, you probably will not have to provide contact information for certain types of service requests. For example, the City of Houston allows people to use the 311 service to file Neighborhood Protection Requests, which may involve a person reporting criminal behavior at a certain location and by known individuals. People might be reluctant to do so if asked to identify themselves, so these reports can be made anonymously. Other cities may offer similar identity protection, depending on the nature of the service request. People can still receive updates on the status of these requests by calling 311, providing the impacted address, and asking for an update on the service request.
One of the best uses of 311 service is to report utility outages or problems, and it can also be used by cities to provide information to callers, such as when it anticipates restoring utility service to areas impacted by a break or outage.
The 311 system is not as old or well-developed at the more familiar 411 and 911 systems. In fact, 311 was once used as a fictitious area code in advertisements and in television shows and movies. This was probably due to the fact that the 311 code was a testing code for many local phone companies.
Baltimore instituted the 311 system in 1996. The goal was to provide a central phone number for city information and non-emergency service calls. 311 can operate with 911; in some locations they are answered by the same operators, but 911 calls receive priority over 911 calls. In other locations, 311 and 911 operate from different locations. Regardless of how they are structured, the goal is for 311 to provide the type of non-emergency information that people seek without taxing the 911 system. Other cities in the U.S. began to follow the Baltimore model, and now most major U.S. cities have implemented some version of the 311 non-emergency system. However, the most comprehensive use of the 311 system in North America is in Toronto.