When David Halter became IT director for the Sweetwater Combined Communications Joint Powers Board three years ago, he saw a flaw in the Wyoming community’s joint emergency communications system: The primary and backup 911 dispatch centers had no redundant network between the two sites.
Before his arrival, Sweetwater County had partnered with the neighboring cities of Rock Springs and Green River, three emergency medical services agencies and several smaller cities to consolidate their 911 communications to improve service.
They now share computer-aided dispatch, geographic information systems and records and jail management software, but had only one fiber connection between the main dispatch center in Green River and the backup center 16 miles away in Rock Springs.
Even though all 911 calls are answered in Green River, half the 911 lines are located in Rock Springs. When a 911 call comes into Rock Springs, it’s routed to the dispatchers in Green River over the fiber network.
If the fiber connection goes down, the agency’s network monitoring tool alerts Halter within minutes. But by the time he calls the service provider to reroute calls directly to Green River, some emergency calls at Rock Springs could go unanswered. “By the time I’m able to respond, there could be a life at stake, and that’s why we need immediate redundancy,” he says.
Halter had two options: install another fiber connection, which carried an astronomical price tag, or go with a wireless solution for a fraction of the cost. So last year, he installed a microwave backhaul by deploying microwave radios on the rooftops of the two dispatch centers.
To enable line-of-sight transmission, he installed microwave radios on two mountaintops between the two buildings. The microwave backhaul provides 1-gigabit-per-second speeds and can take over communications in seconds.
To make it work, the agency installed new Cisco Catalyst 3850 Series switches at each dispatch center and mountaintop. The switches ensure network redundancy by connecting to the fiber network and each microwave radio.
Cities, counties and other local agencies are investing in new technology to improve communication with the public through 311 and 911 centers. Today, nearly every major city and an increasing number of counties and smaller cities are implementing 311 systems for nonemergency services, says Spencer Stern, president of Stern Consulting, who specializes in 311 systems.
Customer relationship management (CRM) software provides agents with a knowledge base filled with information that residents may want. Organizations also use the software to submit and track service requests and capture citizen profiles and contact information.
In recent years, municipalities have focused on better understanding citizens and proactively notifying them of events or services they may be interested in through email, mobile apps and social media, Stern says.
As for 911 dispatch centers, cities and counties are continuously beefing up their technology to increase reliability, improve response times and better serve citizens.
When residents of Grand Rapids, Mich., needed to call the city in the past, they were overwhelmed by a whopping 266 phone numbers to choose from. Thanks to 311, they now receive help by calling a single number.
Grand Rapids’ new 311 system is more than just a hotline, however. Citizens can drop into a walk-in center to ask questions, pay bills or notify the city of potholes and other problems. They can also report those issues over email, a mobile app or online, and soon they’ll be able to do it over social media.
Officially launched last October, the 311 system not only improves customer service, but also helps Grand Rapids operate more efficiently and save money. For example, the 311 center and its nine agents replaced the city’s former 24-person water department call center.
“It’s all about customer satisfaction. If we find that something takes too long, we look at every piece of the puzzle, all the back-end processes, to make it more efficient,” says Becky Jo Glover, 311 customer service manager for the city.
To handle the volume of 311 calls, Grand Rapids deployed a Cisco Unified Communications IP phone system and Cisco Unified Contact Center Express to route and queue calls.
The IT department also equipped each customer service agent with a desktop computer and three 20-inch monitors, so they can quickly toggle between Microsoft Dynamics CRM software and 18 other city applications to assist residents, says Ryan Harris, the city’s CRM project coordinator.
The CRM software houses more than 2,000 scripts in its knowledge base. Developed by city staff, the scripts provide all the information callers may request, including everything from library hours to how to pay property tax. “Our strategy was to take the top 10 to 15 calls that each department would regularly get and determine the flow of each call,” Harris says.
If residents want to pay their garbage bill or report a streetlight outage, the agents can access the other city applications to take care of the transactions or submit the requests in those specific apps, Harris says.
The CRM software also tracks each service request, alerts departments with a message when each request comes in and provides a dashboard with real-time reports for every department so department supervisors and 311 staff can check progress.
Glover says the 311 call center has made a positive impact. The Microsoft Dynamics reporting tools provide detailed reports on factors such as call length, improving and speeding service.
During the past year the water department has fine-tuned its scripts, allowing 311 agents to reduce the length of phone calls from 6 minutes to about 3.5 minutes, she says.
And through business process improvements advocated by the 311 center, the city can now start water service and transfer service to a new resident in one hour, a process that previously took six weeks, she says.
Cities are continuously striving to improve their 311 services, and with call centers in place, many are focused on mobile apps, social media and boosting citizen engagement.
Elgin, Ill., which launched its 311 service in January 2014, recently released a 311 mobile app that enables residents to request service and upload photos to pinpoint problems.
The app includes daily updates of key happenings in the city, such as road closures and events, and aggregates tweets from 60 community groups, says Laura Valdez-Wilson, a senior management analyst with the city.
Elgin, which built its 311 system using cloud-based CRM software, is migrating back-end applications, such as its enterprise resource planning software, to the city’s cloud, says Dan Ault, also a senior management analyst for the city.
As services such as permit applications and water bill payments are migrated, the city will make them available on its mobile app, he says.
Elsewhere, Philadelphia recently upgraded its 311 service with cloud CRM. New features include a community portal, where residents can interact with each other and with city officials about their concerns and issues facing the city, says Rosetta Lue, Philadelphia’s chief customer service officer.
“We are using 311 as the central operations where stakeholders — police, city employees and residents — can improve our community,” Lue says.