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311 as an Emergency Response Tool

September is   National Preparedness Month, and one increasingly important tool used by local governments to prepare for and respond to emergencies is the 311 system. Hurricane Irene recently highlighted the effectiveness of 311 in keeping citizens of east coast cities informed before, during, and after the storm.

311, the non-emergency citizen’s services number, is a great system for tasks as simple as responding to questions about  garbage pickup  in Toronto or parking meter issues in Minneapolis. With such an extensive communication system at cities’ fingertips, it is no wonder that 311 has taken on an important role in emergency response. In Washington DC the 311 Non-emergency program has worked with the Office of Unified Communications to streamline the efforts of several agencies, saving both time and money.  Similarly Kansas City, Mo. has set up an organizational flowchart of who to contact so that emergency information can find its way quickly to all residents. Minneapolis’s system has already been used successfully to respond to emergencies like the I-35W bridge collapse. The cohesive communication plan between 311, 911, the Emergency Operations Center, and other agencies allowed for the distribution of reliable information to citizens, a more effective use of resources, and better coordination of first responders. Even when not responding to emergencies, 311 has also helped lighten the load of an already taxed 911 system. This alternate number has helped reduce the number of non-emergency 911 calls, thus helping small problems reach the right departments to better serve citizens while keeping the 911 emergency lines clear. An American City & County Magazine article also highlighted the mutual benefits of these two systems working together.

The use of 311 systems has spread quickly in the United States and Canada as many cities have integrated 311 into their emergency relief efforts before, during, and after disasters.  ICMA and the 311 Synergy Group together with the COPS Office recently produced a toolkit to assist local governments in planning how to use 311 in emergency response and recovery. The toolkit features articles, interviews, webinars and other tools and resources, and is available here. Be sure to also visit the Knowledge Network’s 311/CRM Systems topic page for even more resources, including a readiness checklist for communities to use before implementing a 311 system.