Pandora Pratt, assistant supervisor of the 311 call center, watches as Harry Nickel, center, and Jose Diaz help a caller with a question on its opening day, March 1. Speaking with Alderman Mark Tendam (back to camera) is call center supervisor Sue Pontarelli.

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Beaming like a new parent, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz welcomed members of the media to the new 311 call center at a press conference held at 3:11 p.m. on March 1, 2011 (3/1/11).

The center, located in the police station, will be staffed by operators from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily to answer – or find the answer to – non-emergency questions from residents. Staff will also answer e-mails and voicemails left overnight, providing Evanston residents with virtual 24/7 access to information about the City, said Joe McRae, who oversaw the project. The call center also offers TTY service for hearing-impaired residents and a translation service for speakers of some non-English languages. Earlier this year, the City Council approved a list of service levels and times it deemed acceptable for responses to certain problems or requests for service, such as trimming a tree or fixing a broken street light.

Mr. Bobkiewicz replayed the first call that came to the center: Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, called at 7:06 a.m. that morning to ask the name of the Seventh Ward alderman. Harry Nickel, who took the call, gave the correct answer.

The City anticipates handling about 160,000 calls this year, said Mr. McRae, who serves as assistant to the City Manager. He said the 911 emergency call center receives about 50,000 non-emergency calls each year, and the 311 center “is expected to relieve the 911 call center of that volume.” Calls will be answered in one of two ways, Mr. McRae said: “Either the person will take down information and get back to you or route you directly to the person you need to speak with. They will do everything possible to make get you all the information in one call.”

On opening day, many of the questions were about garbage carts (asking when the new ones will be distributed) and pot holes (reporting ones that needed to be filled). “One caller reported a dog loose this morning,” said Jacqueline Collier, who, with Holly Lytle, answered calls at one of the six stations in the call center. Jose Diaz and Mr. Nickel spent quite a few minutes tracking the answer to how to replace a lost unpaid parking ticket.

Sue Pontarelli is supervisor of the call center, and Pandora Pratt is assistant supervisor. If all lines are busy, callers can leave a voice mail or send an e-mail with the question, said Ms. Pratt. One of the slogans to get the community to use the center is “Burning house? Call 911. Burning question? Call 311.”

Most land lines and many cell phone networks are equipped to access the center through 311, Mr. McRae said. AT&T Uverse “does not carry 311 but will likely be able to support it in the future”, he said. Those who cannot access the Evanston 311 system by dialing 311 may access it by calling 847-448-4311.”

Ms. Pratt said the responders, who work 8 1/2-hour shifts, are trained to make certain a question has been satisfactorily addressed. “They are supposed to ask if there is anything else [they can do].” She added that the City departments “are working very closely with us.” Replying to a reporter’s question, she said, “There is no one question we’re dreading.”