Deputy City Manager Erika Storlie and City Manager Wally Bobkeiwicz at the 311 center.RoundTable photo

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The City’s latest venture into providing on-the-spot service without face-to-face contact is a program that will allow residents to text questions to its 311 center. This complements the email and call-in methods that residents can use to find information such as beach status and to report non-life-threatening situations, such as graffiti or a missed garbage pickup.

“What we previously had was a little clunky,” said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz. “Now, residents can use the seven-digit number – 847-448-4311 – to create a text.” The City will phase out Agent511 – the “clunky” system – and replace it with two others, SnapEngage and OneReach, that allow web chats and direct texting. The cost for the new systems could be up to $4,200 per year, as compared to $1,250 per year for Agent511.

At a media briefing in the City’s 311 center, on the ground floor of the police station, Mr. Bobkiewicz demonstrated the ease of texting a question and the speed of a response. Deputy City Manager Erika Storlie said, “We hope it will be utilized throughout the City.”

Mr. Bobkiewicz and Ms. Storlie also recapped other changes to the call center. Residents can now schedule building permits online or chat live with an operator during peak periods, such as registration for summer camps.

There is also a downloadable 311 app and an app for parking meters. “We’re pretty excited about the parking meter app,” said Ms. Storlie. “Even though it’s been a quiet launch, it’s been successful. People can pay per [parking] session. They don’t have to prepay, the way they have to do in Chicago,” she added.

“This one is similar to ones used by other suburbs but not similar to the one used in Chicago. We haven’t completed the interoperability piece,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz.

Luke Stowe, digital services manager for the City, said, “We’re working on a parks-and-rec app and one called ‘around me,’ where people can learn what the nearest park or nearest beach is.” He said staff hopes to launch it in early September.

People are moving from their desktops to their smartphones, Mr. Bobkiewicz said. “They want information in short bursts.”

Pandora Pratt, assistant director of the 311 center, said the staff “welcomes new changes. They were very eager when the building department came in.”

Sue Pontarelli, manager of the center, added, “[The staff] love the texting. They love learning new things.”

The 311 center has handled about 73,000 calls since January. Ms. Pratt said the call-center operators receive continual training in how to keep calm when dealing with angry or frustrated residents. “The calm voice says, ‘We are here to help you,’” she said.

Deputy Police Chief Joe Wazny said “enhanced 911” and a way for the 911 call center to receive texts are “things the police department is working on,” with rollouts possible next year.

311 services are available Monday-Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday
8 a.m. to 6 p.m.