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The Buffalo, New York program highlights how the coronavirus has forced many state and local governments to quickly adopt new technology. Some officials see lasting value in the changes.
In under a week’s time earlier this year, Buffalo, New York reworked its 311 call center so operators could take calls from home after municipal employees stopped reporting to offices at City Hall because of coronavirus risks.
The changeover, which took place during the early days of the disease outbreak, is just one example of how states and localities have moved quickly in recent months to adopt new technology with public employees working from home and in-person services curtailed.
“Need brings about innovation,” said Oswaldo Mestre, Buffalo’s chief service officer and director of the city's division of citizen services.
Mestre explained that avoiding disruptions to the call center was a priority for the city. He noted the system is important for citizens calling in with questions and concerns, and that it also provides the city with a window into issues emerging in different neighborhoods.
“We have a duty to make sure that we're listening to people and we’re following up,” he said. In his view, maintaining 311 service was a way to give residents a sense of normalcy as the virus outbreak unfolded and to let them know the city government was still operating.
In more usual times, people might call the city’s 311 line about issues like potholes, problem trees or broken streetlights. But the coronavirus contributed to a rise in calls as people sought information about other needs, like how to get tested for the virus, or how to go about accessing unemployment benefits.
Before the virus, the city’s 311 call center typically received 600 to 700 calls per day. But during the past year, with the pandemic, along with protests and discord over police conduct and racial equity issues, daily calls soared for a time up to the 5,000 to 6,000 range.
These days the pace of calls is back down, hovering just under 1,000 a day, Mestre said. He described recent efforts the city has made to do outreach in neighborhoods that call 311 less than others to make people in those places aware that the service is available.
Buffalo has about a dozen employees working on its 311 program, including operators and other staff. They are for the most part still working remotely, even now.
Setting up a system so that they could work away from the office was a shift that happened in about two-days time, over a March weekend. Mestre said it involved him and others working long hours to ensure that when Monday morning arrived, calls could be answered.
“It was cold, it was snowing, we were meeting people in parking lots bringing equipment and phones,” he said.
The city worked with Cisco on the project, but didn’t have all of the technology it needed to make the rapid shift. It found a workaround by partnering with the State University of New York at Buffalo, which did have the communications equipment necessary to reroute calls.
“They had the backbone, they had the system already configured,” Mestre said. “They allowed us to be a part of their architecture.”
While it was a scramble, Mestre said the city did successfully pull off the project. “On Monday, after staying up all night and literally doing training like a half an hour, an hour right before, when it came 8:30, the phones rang,” he added. “It was just something beautiful to hear.”
Mestre said he believes having the new system in place to allow for remote work will prove useful even after the virus passes. He mentioned other disaster or emergency situations, or even Buffalo’s winter snowstorms, as situations where it could come into play.
"Having this remote allows us to be better equipped,” he said. “We can kind of self-activate those call-takers at home or from a remote place and that’s an important thing.”
Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.
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