When residents call 911 for non-emergency help, it's mostly a minor annoyance, but those types of calls during large disasters can jeopardize rescue efforts. To reduce the crush of calls flooding into 911 systems, some local governments are using their non-emergency 311 service to manage administrative and informational needs so 911 centers can devote their resources to life-threatening situations. After emergencies, 311's work continues by helping residents find the resources they need to recover and directing departments to infrastructure repairs or other necessary service restoration.

Several communities have found that 311 is effective in issuing disaster warnings, publicizing evacuation instructions, directing residents to shelters, addressing the special needs of disabled residents, relaying information to the media and working with the Red Cross and other groups that are involved in relief and recovery. Those roles, however, took time to develop and strong leaders to carve out the relationships and processes that make 311 services most effective in those functions. The lessons they have learned about cooperation, planning and recovery are paving the way for an expanded 311 role in emergency response.

COOPERATION IS KEY

In the early stages of establishing 311 service, some jurisdictions focus just on the service's role in responding to daily calls for government information or routine service requests and may be reluctant to carve out a role for it in emergency situations. So, 311 directors need to promote their centers' potential value in disasters.

Planners need to consider how 311 can be a factor in responding to the problems that arise during a disaster and build awareness of 311's value. Hampton, Va.'s Call Center did that by sharing data about its call volumes, which spiked during snow storms or when flooding occurred. That information demonstrated to emergency planners that residents were already turning to 311 for information during weather-related crises. 311 then was invited to join the city's twice-a-year tabletop emergency planning exercise. As a result, when Hurricane Isabel struck the Hampton area in September 2003, 311 had been integrated into the emergency operation plan.

In addition to reducing 911's call volume, 311 can relieve the burden on other government units. Departments such as public works may be challenged to meet their workloads during routine times and unable to absorb added demands during an emergency. 311 can serve as a liaison between residents and departments to dispatch appropriate services to where they are needed. Being able to ramp up during disasters becomes part of 311's mandate so that, during the emergency, its coordinating role multiplies resources.

311 also can be an important factor in 911's own backup plans. In a fast-moving natural disaster, a 911 center may need to be evacuated or its communications system may be hobbled. If that happens, 311 can help fill in the gaps until 911 service is restored.

Of course, 311 centers need to have their own backup resources to ensure continuity of service during a disaster. Those may include having a large generator, redundancies built into the computer network, and the capacity to direct calls to another location. Like 911, 311 centers need to be given top priority for restoring service by utility companies. With cell phones, satellite phones and laptop computers, 311 staff can set up their operations in an alternate location on relatively short notice.