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In Albany, 311 calls up answers

Albany Information Technology Department Manager Cindy Tiernan, left, and 311 Supervisor Tricia Borsdorf, shown Tuesday at their office, head up the 3-year-old non-emergency information program that fields 30,000 calls a year on everything from business licenses to potholes.

Albany Information Technology Department Manager Cindy Tiernan, left, and 311 Supervisor Tricia Borsdorf, shown Tuesday at their office, head up the 3-year-old non-emergency information program that fields 30,000 calls a year on everything from business licenses to potholes.

ALBANY, Ga. — When city of Albany IT Project Manager Cindy Tiernan was handed the city’s new 311 program three years ago, she took an approach that, while not typical among government workers, has helped make the non-emergency information call program a success beyond city leaders’ expectations.

Only a year and a half into her position with the city after a long career in the private sector, Tiernan sought to make the 311 program personal.

“As a former private business owner, I didn’t have to deal very much with government, so I didn’t really understand what was involved from their point of view,” Tiernan said. “I had no idea who you’d need to call to get answers to your questions.

“When they told me the 311 program would be one of my projects, I looked at it the way a typical citizen would. I looked at it personally.”

Three years in, Albany’s 311 center has been recognized by influential Georgia Trend magazine as one of six Trendsetter programs in the state. It’s six part-time operators are logging more than 30,000 calls a year, and a recent mobile app allows citizens on the go to contact the center on their smartphones.

But Assistant City Manager Wes Smith said the most meaningful plus of the non-emergency call program is what it has taken away.

“I can’t stress how big an impact our 311 center is having on our 911 emergency call center,” Smith, who was instrumental in setting up the 311 program, said. “There are about 1,000 calls a month — more than 30 calls a day — that are going to 311 now rather than 911. That’s huge when you consider how important each second is in a real emergency.”

Shortly after Tiernan and the city’s IT department set up the 311 center, the program had Tricia Borsdorf “drop into our laps” as the program’s supervisor.

“We’d interviewed five candidates who applied for the job, and Tricia was the last candidate to come before us,” Smith said. “It just so happened her husband had transferred here, and she’d been laid off from a job with a national software company.

“She came in and blew us away. She was just what we needed.”

Together Tiernan and Borsdorf have worked hand-in-hand to get the 311 call center up to speed and to incorporate the 311 concept onto the Web and make the smartphone mobile application available. As Tiernan explains it, the process is quite simple:

“A citizen simply dials 311 on his or her phone, specifies an area for a service request, tells us what the request is, and when we get all the pertinent details we input the information into our computer software,” the IT project manager said. “As soon as we hang up, we hit save and the request automatically goes to the department responsible. The department assigns and does the work.”

The process is just as simple — and can be accomplished 24 hours a day without the need for human contact — on a computer. After logging on (to 311answers.com or albany.ga.us), citizens may log into the 311 system or set up an account. They use prompts to tell what and where their concern is, respond to specific questions about the problem and may either attach photos or comments. Again the request is routed to an appropriate department.

If citizens want, they can have an email response sent to their account notifying them when work on their request is completed.

The smartphone app — which may be downloaded for free on Android or iPhones — allows citizens to request a service and automatically download photos they take with their phones.

“The reatcion we’ve generally gotten in the community is WOW!” Tiernan said. “It’s gone over so well, in fact, we’ve had representatives from cities all over Georgia and the Southeast come to visit and see how our operation works. And I’ve visited Virginia, Washington, St. Louis, Huntsville, Ala., and other places to tell about our program.

“I guess the toughest obstacle we had with the program at first was getting city departments to buy in. They were reluctant to share their data. But most of them have come around. I’ve had several who were skeptical at first call me and say, ‘This really works.’”

Smith, too, says early skepticism has all but disappeared.

“By working with the various departments, and letting them see the results of 311, everyone’s recognized the value of the program,” Smith said. “When department heads see that a process that used to take up a good portion of their time can now be accomplished in 30 seconds to a minute, their reaction is ‘too cool.’”

Borsdorf’s part-time operators, such as retired 32-year city of Albany employee Johnnie Carruthers, do not simply transfer calls to city officials, leaving callers at the mercy of personnel availability or initiating frustrating phone-tag issues. Instead, they make “warm transfers,” making sure a department employee is on the line and ready to answer a question before transferring.

There are, however, lighter moments.

“I keep a record of some of the more interesting calls and send them out in our monthly newsletter,” Borsdorf said. “Some of those calls this week included a call about four donkeys in the middle of the road (which was not a joke), a female caller wanting to know if what she’d heard about getting a discount if she bought a certain numbers of Budweisers was true, and a lady who called and said she was at her apartment complex but her body was elsewhere.

“That gives us a break from the abandonded vehicle, pothole and grafitti calls.”

Roughly 65 percent of the 311 calls are city of Albany issues, while 35 percent involve the county. A number of them, though, have nothing to do with the city or county. Code Enforcement and Public Works are the departments that receive the most calls.

Albany City Manager James Taylor has become a believer in the city’s 311 system. He warns city employees, though, that the bottom-up concept of the program should keep them on their toes.

“This has been a very efficient program, taken a lot of stress off our individual departments,” Taylor said. “It has served the community well, and I’ve heard nothing but good comments.

“One thing that I like about the program is that once a request is put into our system, it’s tracked. If it isn’t taken care of, it keeps getting elevated up the chain until it gets done. There are a few calls that have made their way all the way up to my office. Our folks have learned not to like it when that happens.”