Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday December 13th 2017

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3-1-1 Service to the Rescue

By Duwayne Escobedo

Brian Spencer is one of the biggest proponents of Pensacola’s 3-1-1 service to report non-emergency problems, such as a darkened streetlight, car-jarring potholes or repairs needed at one of the small coastal town’s 93 parks.

The two-term city councilman and local architect never hesitates to snap a photograph in the downtown area—which includes some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods—with his mobile phone and upload the issue to the city on Pensacola’s 3-1-1 app.

He enjoys getting regular updates on the city’s progress until the problem gets resolved. Spencer encourages his constituents to use the app, too. 3-1-1 problems can be reported through the app, through the city’s website or by calling the city.
“I have a 100 percent success record,” Spencer said. “It’s extremely useful. But it’s not being used to its fullest potential. When I show people how to use it the reaction is nothing but enthusiasm and excitement.”

The 3-1-1 system was first introduced in Baltimore in 1996 and won the Innovation award from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2003. Nearly 70 municipalities across the United States use the system. Another 20 cities in Canada have launched the 3-1-1 service. Toronto, a city of nearly six million, currently handles the most 3-1-1 requests from its citizens. Pensacola implemented the program in July 2011 during the first year of Mayor Ashton Hayward’s first term in office.

While some major cities receive well over 1 million requests for city services in a year, Pensacola Mayor’s two-person Office of Constituent Services handled 4,875 calls in 2015. Of those, 2,810 requests, or 57.6 percent, were for city phone numbers or referrals to other agencies.

During that year, only 154 of 1,910 remaining issues went uncompleted. That’s a 92 percent success rate for those entries. Popular issues were potholes (156 calls), streetlights (123) and code enforcement (176).

According to Constituent Services Administrator Latasha Buchanan, the main reason a service request isn’t completed is because it involves the city and cooperation with other Escambia County governmental agencies.

Buchanan said, “The average time it takes to close jobs varies quite a bit. For instance, a request for the phone number for another agency is completed right away. However, a Code compliance request could take more than 30 days to complete due to the notification requirements.”

Mayor Hayward is pleased with the service. He said in a press statement, “3-1-1 is a central piece of my effort to foster a ‘citizens first’ culture here at City Hall. It pushes us to be better every day and helps us continue to improve the services we’re providing to our citizens.”

Buchanan said she’s excited to spotlight Pensacola’s 3-1-1 service, which she said has been underutilized. The city once had three employees hired to strictly answer requests but realized it’s staff of two could log and answer the current low flow of calls for service.

The City has launched an app that lets citizens send requests from their  iPhone/iPad, Android and Blackberry devices. The app can be downloaded from the city’s 3-1-1 page on its website. A 3-1-1 ticket can be submitted by uploading photos and allowing the device’s GPS location pinpoint the location of the problem. The 3-1-1 platform is powered by PublicStuff, an industry leader that provides services to more than 200 cities across the country.

Currently, requests for city services by the app account for about 8 percent of the total submitted. Although the city app is quick and easy to use, it has failed to catch on, so far. Requests through the city website—Pensacola311.com—make up 7 percent of requests for city services. Meanwhile, phone calls remain the most popular way to contact the city for services, totaling 85 percent of requests.

Those who use 3-1-1 can then track progress with updates sent by the city to their e-mail addresses or mobile phones.

“I believe residents who use the 3-1-1 service feel empowered to reach out to the city,” said Buchanan, who said she wishes Escambia County would offer the service, too. “They are turning it in themselves and then can follow along with the job every step of the way.”

And don’t be surprised if you see Buchanan in person at a reported issue by a Pensacola resident.

“People don’t realize the extent of what we do for our residents,” she said.

Some cities, such as Akron, Ohio, have watched awareness of their non-emergency services number skyrocket with catchy campaigns. Akron promotes it with the message: “Burning building? Call 9-1-1. Burning Question? Call 3-1-1.”

Right now, Spencer remains one of the biggest champions of the city’s nearly five-year-old 3-1-1 service. He points out the system offers public records of a job from when it’s first reported to when it’s finally completed.

Spencer said, “We do need to increase education and awareness.”