Audit: San Jose’s 3-1-1 Hotline in Desperate Need of Improvement

What began in the 1990s as a hotline to offload non-emergency calls from 9-1-1 systems has become a transformative tool for cities throughout the U.S. The best 3-1-1 lines offer a two-way benefit: citizens get to report quality-of-life issues while cities glean a wealth of data to measure performance and tackle urban problems before they get out of hand.

San Jose’s version falls far short of that ideal.

Dialing 3-1-1 in the self-described Capital of Silicon Valley involves a several-minute slog through an English-only phone tree and results in zero redeemable metrics for the city.

That’s according to a new audit of the 9-1-1 and non-emergency hotlines, which San Jose’s Public Safety, Finance and Strategic Support Committee plans to review today.

In the just-published report that primarily focuses on problems hampering the San Jose’s intractably overwhelmed 9-1-1 system, City Auditor Sharon Erickson and her team also spill a fair bit of ink describing a non-emergency counterpart that’s critically understaffed and woefully behind the times. Just as alarming, however, is what auditors couldn’t thoroughly analyze because of massive gaps in available data.

Though 40 percent of the San Jose police communications center’s call volume is non-emergency and anecdotally relates to things like utilities, trash, abandoned cars and noise, there’s no way to really know without systematically tracking what people dial in about. Having that kind of info would help the city strategically overhaul 3-1-1 into an expansive customer help line, which is what the public uses it for anyway.

While Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major cities have evolved their versions of 3-1-1 into a sort-of one-stop, easy-to-remember city number to find information or report problems, San Jose’s has remained almost an afterthought. According to the audit, calls to San Jose’s 3-1-1 line have declined while those made to a seven-digit number (277.8900) that routes to the same operators have trended up.

That divergence might owe to the city promoting the latter number in lieu of 3-1-1, which isn’t available to all cellphone users. San Jose police Chief Eddie Garcia and fire Chief Robert Sapien co-signed a memo saying they agree with the audit’s advice to remedy the lapse, but that it requires cooperation from the private sector.

“There are two barriers for those seeking to call 3-1-1 from cellphones,” they explain in response to the report. “First, only AT&T and Sprint offer 3-1-1 service in San Jose. The other carriers do not. Second, wireless call routing depends on the cell tower receiving the call. This means that San Jose-based call may get routed via a tower in a neighboring jurisdiction that does not offer 3-1-1. In that case, the call would not go through.”

With telecom giants ready to ramp up to 5G, now’s an opportune time to urge those industry holdouts to do their part. Should they oblige, Garcia and Sapien note, the city will probably have to beef up 3-1-1 staffing to handle the resulting influx of calls.

Better that problem than this one: a hotline so disjointed, so meandering that people burden 9-1-1 with non-emergency issues just to get through to someone.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

7 Comments

    • That’s it’s own story! But yeah, upgrading 3-1-1 would is just one part of that fix. The other piece is technological. A bill that would have funded modernization of 9-1-1 systems petered out last year. Not sure if lawmakers plan to revisit that in this session, but I’ll try to find out.

      • My main issue with 911 is their policies on when to send someone out.

        My wife and I live over by Brahnam and Cherry, sort of by the Almaden Brit. A few years ago we got some food over there, I can’t remember what it was, maybe Nick the Greek or some Froyo, but that’s not really relevant. My wife tells me, “It’s a nice day, I feel like a walk, why don’t you drive the car home?”

        I thought this was a 1/2 decent part of SJ, had no issue with it so I drive home. 15 minutes later my wife comes huffing through the door in a panic.

        “ROB SOME WEIRDO FOLLOWED ME HOME!”

        I looked out the window, and sure enough in the middle of the street was some guy staring at my window, rubbing his junk. I grab my baseball bat and go out front.

        (Unfortunately you will not allow me to post the flowing stream of vulgarities, but use your imagination. Something along the lines of, “WHAT THE ***** WERE YOU DOING FOLLOWING MY WIFE BACK TO THE HOUSE?”)

        The guy looked scared, “UH I WAS GOING TO USE THE PEDESTRIAN BRIDGE TO GO GOT BASKIN ROBBINS”

        “BS IT WOULD HAVE BEEN SHORTER TO WALK UP ALMADEN!”

        I started marching towards the guy, baseball bat in my right hand swinging it as I quickly made my way towards him. He started running back the way he came. We called the cops.

        “OH THIS ISN’T AN EMERGENCY IF NOBODY IS HURT” 911 told us. My neighbor across the street, a 72 year old 6’4″ former Vietnam marine saw everything go down. He came out to meet my wife and I standing out front on the phone with 911. After asking what happened, and my wife explaining it to him, he got on his phone and chewed the 911 operator out.

        He fired up his truck and asked us to get in to track the guy down. We drove around the block a few times and he vanished. We started driving around the school, and there was a cop car parked there. Some cop was drinking some starbucks and eating something.

        “HEY DIDN’T YOU GET A CALL ABOUT HER BEING FOLLOWED HOME?” my neighbor said as he pointed at my wife.

        “Ya, but there’s no point in following up” the cop smirked. “Nobody got hurt”

        Then my neighbor laid into him as only a former marine could.

        “YOU EVER BEEN IN THE SERVICE?” he said as he showed his arm tattoo.

        “No sir” the cop sort of cowardly quibbled.

        “I DIDN’T SPEND 2 YEARS OF MY LIFE FIGHTING FOR THIS COUNTRY AND PAYING TAXES FOR YOU TO SIT HER WHILE MY NEIGHBORS WIFE GETS HARASSED BY SOME VAGRANT, GET OFF YOUR *** AND DO YOUR JOB BEFORE I CALL YOUR SUPERVISOR”

        With that, the cop pulled out of the school parking lot. Nothing ever came of it. 911 and SJPD suck by matter of policy, and this sorely needs to be addressed.

        • The “vagrant” didn’t commit a crime. When people are in public, they can be photographed, folllowed and watched, because… America. The same constitutional freedom that allows you to “watch” the cops allows people to walk around whatever neighborhood they wish to.

          No stalking, no peeping, no indecent exposure. Even he was Megan’s Law registrant, he didn’t commit a crime.

          You did, however. Threatening him and swinging a baseball bat. Which is an assault with a deadly weapon, and possibly criminal threats… Felonies.

          Be careful what you wish for is the old saying… by harassing the police into action you could have gotten unintended consequences.

          I’d imagine that was what the smirk was all about. The other guy wasn’t hurt and didn’t call 911. So since no one was hurt, there’s no reason to go look for dude.

          Now, if the officer went and found and guy and he wanted to press charges on you- different story.

          911 is for crimes in progress and medical emergencies. If everything you described is accurate, SJPD did you a solid by keeping you out of jail.

  1. 277-8900 phone tree hell to get you to take your silly ass problem some place else. You mean someone in city government actually want to hear from the public? Oh sure if you saw a sasquatch!

  2. Wait… This mayor raped sjpd with measures v w and b… Costing millions in lawsuits a full third of the department leaving… And you are whining about 3-1-1? Idiots.. you should be suing for your county taxes to be refunded… You are not nearly protected considering what you are paying… Oh wait… You are also surprised that yet another downtown mayor has a conflict of interest with boosting downtown development… I left… So should you… Enjoy your new energy company

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