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Buffalo, N.Y., Creates Remote 311 Center in Two Days

Buffalo views its 311 line as a way that it can be a good neighbor to its residents. Here's how the city leveraged partnerships and tech to ensure that citizens could call their government for anything during COVID-19.

The skyline of Buffalo, N.Y.
The skyline of Buffalo, N.Y.
In the middle of March, the city of Buffalo, N.Y., faced a dilemma as it began transitioning all of its city hall employees to remote positions: How would it maintain its 311 call center during an uncertain time when people would really need to call their government? 

Oswaldo Mestre, chief service officer and citizen services director for Buffalo, said he remembers March 20 quite well. It was a Friday, and Buffalo, despite having vacated its city hall, had set the ambitious goal of having its 311 line up and running again by Monday at 8:30 a.m. 

The problem was that creating a remote call center, Mestre said, would normally take months of planning, another few months for procurement and a couple more months to operationalize and test everything out. 

But with the help of the University of Buffalo (UB) and technology vendor Cisco, Buffalo managed to pull it off.  

“We had to test it,” Mestre said. “We had to scale it up. We had to tweak it. We had to do a whole bunch of things, and every time we went further, if there was a roadblock, we sat there and said, ‘How can we overcome this?’”

Before the pandemic, the city’s 311 line received about 600 calls a day on average. The city established its 311 system about 12 years ago. Buffalo invested in a “pretty robust” model that allows staff to access analytics about the types of call coming in. 

Mestre noted that some people call 311 the “complaint hotline.” He sees it differently. 

“I call it the opportunity hotline,” Mestre said. “Every time someone calls, it’s an opportunity for us to bind that social contract with residents in the community. If we’re not taking those calls, who will?”

During the week of March 20, the city had determined that it didn’t have the infrastructure for a remote call center. Time started to run out as Saturday approached. 

Steve Heist, network and communication services director for UB, said he received a phone call at 6 p.m. on March 20. The call was from Cisco, which had an existing relationship with both the city and the university, and Heist learned about the city’s problem. After consulting with university leadership, Heist assessed the situation and concluded that the university had the capability and capacity to help the city. 

Once Buffalo was able to find phones that would work with the remote call center, Heist said the university’s call manager infrastructure enabled city staff to take the phones home and remain in sync with the call center. 

The university had already scaled the infrastructure for the purpose of allowing more than 4,000 of its own employees to work remotely. Heist said the foundation could have handled up to 10,000 call-takers. The city merely added another 13. 

“We had the hardware in place,” Heist said. “We had the virtual technology in place and the capability in place. So being able to take on the city of Buffalo was really not a heavy lift on our part.”

Essentially, the solution worked because UB had made a forward-thinking investment in technology.

“Purchasing is a process, right? I can’t go out tomorrow and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to buy a new piece of hardware and we’re going to install it and get it done,’” Heist remarked. 

Moreover, Heist said UB makes sure to stay on top of updates so that the latest features, security measures and more are always in place. Whether it’s on-premise or in the cloud, Heist emphasized that “you’ve got to have flexibility of compute resources to be able to meet the business need.”

Mestre said that UB’s quick assistance ties back to Buffalo’s “City of Good Neighbors” moniker. Heist pointed out that university leadership was ready to extend a helping hand. 

“Nobody flinched,” Heist said. Everybody said, ‘What do we need to do to make this happen?’ And I think that’s really the mindset that we all have to have during these difficult times.”

During the pandemic, Buffalo’s 311 line has received anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 calls a day. People have called about masks, food, unemployment, potholes, barking dogs, garbage, COVID-19 tests and a host of other concerns. 

“We’ve taken more calls than we’ve ever taken,” Mestre said. 

Technology, however, can only go so far without a human touch. The city also created an on-the-ground initiative called the Good Neighbors Network. Buffalo made enough door hangers to put on the door of every home in the city. On one side, the hangers featured information on how people could contact the government, including the 311 line. 

Mestre said this measure was a way to encourage everyone to engage the city for help. 

“There are some folks who may not know how to put that call in … especially in communities that traditionally may not look at accessing government,” he said. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.