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.