When Superstorm Sandy hit Massachusetts in late October 2012, the region was hit with extensive power outages, flooding and 60 mile-per-hour-plus winds. Public transportation systems were shut down, flights were grounded, and schools and municipal buildings were shuttered statewide.

But in the city of Boston -- one of the oldest and most enduring cities in the nation -- city work crews were out in full force, battling the elements to support emergency response and recovery efforts to put the city back online.

As Mother Nature doled out its worst, Boston was able to put its best foot forward, thanks in part to its Mayor’s Hotline that supports non-emergency information calls and service requests.

Leveraging 311 in Disasters

Over the years, 311 systems have done a tremendous amount of heavy lifting for non-emergency citizen engagement for information exchange and city service reporting and tracking. But increasingly, local governments are recognizing the utility of 311 CRM systems and their application to support emergency operations coordination and response efforts.

Today’s multi-channel 311 CRM systems are effectively functioning as the new Public Information Office – rapidly disseminating critical information and helping coordinate the deployment of work crews, equipment and even volunteer efforts. During emergencies, constituents can receive up-to-date information on road and building closures, evacuation routes, and shelter locations.

By diverting nonemergency calls from busy 911 systems before, during and after emergencies, 311 CRM systems help ensure that first responders remain available to respond to situations that are immediately life-threatening.

The beauty of leveraging 311 systems for crisis management/emergency response is that the infrastructure is already in place, “always on” and citizens have already been conditioned to rely on 311 call centers for information and assistance. The other plus is from an economic perspective -- repurposing existing 311 call center infrastructure for emergency response is a budget-friendly tactic, especially given today’s budget hardships.

311 systems allow jurisdictions to push and pull information for whatever crisis is at hand – natural disaster, severe weather, a school shooting, and everything in between -- from riots to road closures. They are also being used to support the coordination of valuable volunteer resources and donations in times of need to get these resources in use quickly in the affected areas. Call takers can provide information about the specific types of donations that are needed, and help coordinate the acceptance process and delivery locations of donations.

Boston Does 311 Emergency-Style

In Boston, the 311 system, based on KANA CRM technology, was first implemented in 2008, and extended via the addition of Boston’s City Worker mobile app, which routes service requests straight to Android-based mobile devices of the nearest work crew from the responsible department.

Leveraging CRM, mobile functionality and social media, Boston was able to respond to more than 700 reported tree emergencies and 300 down wire reports quickly and efficiently in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. This was all thanks to the city's end-to-end issue reporting, execution and tracking, which helped guide the city in the optimal deployment of resources. During this time, the city’s call center functioned at a 100 percent service level – all 4,600 phone calls during the day of the storm were answered by a live person within 30 seconds.

The city also responded to issues from citizens that were reporting via the Boston Citizen's Connect mobile app and utilized social media channels to communicate with its constituents and to track incident reports. With Twitter alone, the city made more than 500,000 impressions with its hashtag #BoSandy and efforts via @NotifyBoston.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino has stated that over the nearly 20 years he has served as mayor of Boston, the city has consistently invested in constituent service. "I believe the first role of government should be is to help people," he has said. "The way we help our residents in times of disaster continues to improve and evolve with technology, but at the core remains our mission to connect directly with residents, and do all we can to improve quality of life in our neighborhoods.”

The city of Boston is just one example of how 311 systems can shoulder the load of supporting efficient responsive service to citizen delivery on a day-to-day basis and in times of crisis.

While jurisdictions have always aimed to serve citizens in times of need, the use of 311 systems enables them to enlist the help of citizens, empowering them to be united in their governments efforts to serve and protect them; and enabling cities and communities to more effectively weather whatever storms may come, and to persevere and rebuild their communities after the fact.

Photo courtesy of Steve Zumwalt/FEMA