Connecting state and local government leaders

Why Houston Untethered Its 311 Service After Hurricane Ike

Stacy Stanley, Robert, and their 6-year-old son Zane watch the high water level on White Oak Drive at the Taylor Street underpass as floodwaters rise from the White Oak Bayou after heavy rains hit the Houston area on Saturday, April 18, 2009. The Stanley'

Stacy Stanley, Robert, and their 6-year-old son Zane watch the high water level on White Oak Drive at the Taylor Street underpass as floodwaters rise from the White Oak Bayou after heavy rains hit the Houston area on Saturday, April 18, 2009. The Stanley' Julio Cortez / AP Photo (Houston Chronicle)

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

It’s no longer every call center operator for themselves.

The city of Houston understands the importance of keeping its “mission critical” 311 call center operators in play after Hurricane Ike blew out their downtown building’s windows in September 2008.

The third-costliest storm in U.S. history—causing 195 deaths and $19.3 billion in damage as far south as Galveston, Texas—saw Space City’s 311 calls jump from 5,800 to 25,000 a day overnight, before shutting the center down for two days.

When operators started calling in sick just to see to their own families’ safety, municipal leaders realized emergency management operations needed to be untethered from a brick and mortar facility.

“Technology enables us to operate anywhere but where the hurricane is, and we test this on a daily basis with some people telecommuting from home,” said Frank Carmody, deputy director of operations for Houston Administration and Regulatory Affairs. “If you were to call 311, you wouldn’t know they weren’t right here in the facility.”

If Houston is forecasted within a hurricane’s cone and there’s a 50 percent or greater chance of landfall, the mayor has the option of sending one third of 311 agents to San Antonio. From there, operators can use powerful hotspots to remotely access the city’s customer relationship management (CRM) system—Verint Engagement Management.

City Hall is a longtime user of the public sector software, which the Public Works and Solid Waste departments depend on for records. Debris, downed trees and flooding can be plotted in Melville, New York-based Verint’s system, so the Houston Emergency Center can best allocate resources to handle the calls for service.

The call center has been reinforced, generators placed on the roof and onsite child and pet care arranged. But an air conditioning malfunction could render the building an ineffective shelter in the summer months, and power outages could stop agents from coming to work.

With Dallas about a five-hour drive, San Antonio made the most sense for an alternate base of operations that limited travel time. Houston will attempt to lodge its operators in hotels with convention centers and thus better bandwidth, but because it’s impossible to anticipate when those spaces should be reserved, the hotspots enable staff to work out of restaurants or coffee shops if needed.

Carmody came on in 2011, after Ike, when the city transitioned to using Verint as its vendor. The latest CRM, implemented about a year ago, enables Houston to make use of its knowledge base of around 2,600 frequently asked questions both internally and externally.

Agents use the FAQs like Google and can post information on the nearest shelters and evacuations, but users can also use the 311 website to get answers—cutting down on call center wait times.

“Those become force multipliers, when the citizen actually becomes the agent,” Carmody said.

Improving such citizen self-service is a priority.

The current Houston 311 app goes through the CRM to the responsible department and has about 15,000 downloads to date, though the city would like to see it used more.

“We’re working with Houston to continue to increase mobile data collection,” said Steve Carter, Verint key public sector account manager. “We think the right way to do that is with simple applications because some agents may need to manually capture that information if the powers out.”

When Houston flooded earlier this year, people could use the app to report damage assessments for entire neighborhoods, again limiting the number of 311 calls coming in.

Verint is also considering the role of social media in its work.

“Sometimes people report damage on Twitter,” Carter said. “We can easily collect that data, as well as a lot of other options for city planning purposes—whatever channel is convenient and available.”

Dave Nyczepir is News Editor for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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