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Mike Ross

Bostonians need 311 for non-urgent calls

BOSTON HOLDS itself out as a forward-thinking city, but when it comes to lodging complaints we fall short. Unlike San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, where dialing the internationally recognized, non-emergency number 311 gets you immediate help, Boston’s hotline is 10 digits long. The refusal to adopt the shortcut many years ago was a classic Tom Menino reflex — it wasn’t his idea, so it was a bad idea. But a recent incident in my neighborhood has awakened the concept, at least for me.

City dwellers have adapted to the loud noises that would otherwise limit their ability to enjoy a good night’s sleep. Closed windows and air conditioning in the summer are a must, even when a nice breeze might be preferred. Many use a white noise simulator to drown out the sounds of the city. If all else fails, you just get used to it and turn over and go back to sleep after the offending firework, shout, or piercing motorcycle engine screams out in the quiet night.

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Still, there are times when a persistent noise might not only disrupt your night’s sleep but that of an entire neighborhood. For those situations, direct human intervention is required. No pillow is thick enough to blot out, for example, the wailing of that horribly annoying, yet oddly familiar car alarm that seemingly never ends.

For me, the other night, it was a very loud and extremely persistent dog that barked endlessly beginning at 1:30 a.m. From the sounds of it, it was a small dog. Like most small dogs it was quite a barker. Worse, perhaps, was the as-loud-as-humanly-possible screaming of my next-door neighbor for the dog to “SHUT THE [expletive] UP!” This refrain he repeated every couple of minutes, which also had no effect whatsoever on the dog.

To me, this seemed like a 911 call. After explaining that this was not an emergency and reporting the problem, my call taker decided to give me a hip check when she said — “Listen, the next available unit will be there, alright?” “Listen” is what you would expect from a provoked tow-truck driver. It’s not something you should get from a public-facing representative of the police department.

But the broader policy question goes back to 311 and why Boston doesn’t have it. If 311 existed that night, I likely would have spoken to a kinder and gentler call taker, who could have then dealt with the grumpy person at Schroeder Plaza instead.

City Hall will tell you it has a constituent complaint tool that’s just as good — the mayor’s 24-hour constituent service line. It may be good, but the problem is the lack of people who call it. In some parts of Boston calling the number 617-635-4500 might make all the sense in the world. But for most everyone else, 311 is just easier. The numbers back this up.

City Hall will tell you it has a constituent complaint tool that’s just as good — but it’s 10 digits long.

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Boston reports roughly 250,000 calls per year. That’s about one call for every three Boston residents. For cities that have 311, their numbers are much higher. Chicago averages one and one-half calls per person, New York over 2 calls per person, and San Francisco the most with almost 4 calls per person. Springfield, Newton, and Somerville (of course) have offered 311 for years. These cities don’t have more problems or more complainers — they just have better access to municipal government. And that’s a good thing. It provides for a more direct connection for the quality-of-life enhancements that make cities strong, safe, and vibrant. The more calls, the more service, and so on.

So, yes, the Walsh administration should adopt 311, but it should also do something else: Make sure that the calls that are answered in the dark of night aren’t dispensing more bark than the offending problem in the first place. For that, we’d all be able to sleep better.

Mike Ross’s column appears regularly. Follow him on Twitter @MikeforBoston
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