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Citizen Service Center In-A-Box Makes Pasadena, Calif.’s 311 Phone System Mobile

A grab-and-go mobile communications set-up ensures that one California city can be there for residents during an emergency.

What do you get when a major windstorm hits a 100-plus-year-old city? A recipe for disaster. That’s what Pasadena, Calif., city officials faced in 2011 when severe gusts of wind toppled hundreds of trees and snapped traffic signals in half. The city launched its Emergency Operations Center according to procedure and began receiving 311 calls from residents who needed help. While operations went smoothly, it brought up an important question for city officials: what happens if we can’t access our emergency facilities in the event of an emergency? That question led to the development of Pasadena’s Citizen Service Center (CSC) In-A-Box to ensure emergencies don’t get in the way of residents’ ability to reach out to the city for help.

The idea is simple: If the city’s call center facility ever becomes compromised, all the equipment and technology needed to communicate with residents is available and ready to be used in one convenient box. Rolled out last year, the box includes headsets, laptops and networking equipment that are programmed to connect to the city’s network. To access the system in an emergency, users simply open the box, plug the equipment into a city network jack, and they can immediately access the 311-phone system to communicate with residents and emergency crews.

The box was an internal collaboration between the citizen service center and IT departments. The city’s telecommunications specialists took on the technical challenge of recovering calls from anywhere in the city. According to Phillip Leclair, Pasadena’s CIO, the box is not only an efficient solution to a major challenge, it’s also cost-effective. “The CSC In-A-Box is about disaster recovery, resiliency and business continuity. We’re leveraging investments that already exist,” he said. “It’s really an extension of what we’ve already created, it’s just the actual equipment that the end user will be using. The back end is the existing infrastructure that supports the whole city.”

In other words, besides the headsets, equipment and manpower to set them up, the solution relies entirely on existing technologies, like the network phone system. Leclair noted that the box’s minor costs are funded through general city funds earmarked for emergency operations preparedness.

While Pasadena hasn’t had to use the box in an actual emergency, officials have conducted thorough testing to ensure it is configured properly and functions as planned. As the city’s 311 manager, Mandy Templeton oversees the call center and the five team members who handle communications. Her small team receives about 75,000 calls and processes more than 25,000 service requests per year for things like water and power issues as well as emergency assistance. As a training measure, she leads monthly timed drills to ensure all of her employees are prepared and confident to launch the box during an emergency, without the assistance of technical specialists.

Templeton pointed out that the box can also be used to scale up call center operations. “If we needed additional bodies to answer the phones, we are limited in our space,” she said. “Just opening the box, I can increase my staff quickly if needed.” She also noted that in the event that it is unsafe for her team to be in the call center, they can now simply load the box into a car and drive offsite to a safe location.

With such a high degree of simplicity, convenience and cost efficiency, could this solution work for other cities? Potentially. “The fact that this is mobile is wonderful and it’s low cost,” Templeton said. “In our city and every other city right now, cutting costs is No. 1, so this was using the resources we have here and the people in IT who have knowledge of how this could come together.”

Leclair also pointed to the fact that it gives the city added redundancy and resiliency — things that rank high on the priority lists of government decision-makers. “It leveraged all of our existing infrastructure,” he said.