Baltimore government to replace phone system

10,000 daily calls to go to one number, voice mail to expand

April 02, 2001|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Anyone who tries calling the less-than-efficient phone system of Baltimore government offices likely experiences one of two nagging problems.

Or both.

First, you may have to dial three or four numbers - or find yourself transferred three or four times - before reaching the person or department you sought. Next, when you find the right office, you may get someone's voice mail, only to be told the system is full and you can't leave a message.

So, despite the proposed budget cuts Mayor Martin O'Malley unveiled last week, city officials have decided it's time for a new way to handle the 10,000-plus phone calls that pour into city offices each day. And in the coming months, the city will install two systems to resolve its phone woes.

The first project, already being installed in some departments, is a huge $1.3 million computerized "one-call" phone-in system that allows residents to call a single city government phone number to make a complaint, ask a question or find their City Council person.

Modeled after a system in Chicago, operators handling incoming calls will have a computer screen before them and can transfer a caller to the correct department or enter the caller's information into the computer, where it will create a "work order" and direct it to the appropriate office.

For example, people calling to report a pothole currently call the mayor's office, their council person's office or the Department of Public Works.

"And then," said O'Malley, "after seven calls, you call your Uncle Buck who used to work in Public Works and has a friend there named Bob. And you hope that one of those trout makes it upstream and you get your pothole fixed."

Elliot H. Schlanger, the city's new chief information officer, said the biggest problem with the city's system of handling incoming calls is that no tracking system is used. The city has no way of knowing what action has been taken in response to a caller's question or complaint, he said.

Under the new system, each call will be assigned a tracking number that city officials and residents can use to check the status of a call or complaint. Residents will also be able to check the status on an Internet Web site.

The system will cost about $1.3 million next year, plus another $1 million each year for computer services provided by the contractor, Motorola Corp.

A phone number has not been chosen. The system may take over the 311 number used for nonemergency police and fire calls.

The board also approved a $314,000 replacement of the city's decade-old voice mail system, which was designed to handle 1,500 users and store 100 hours of voice-mail messages but handles twice as much phone traffic. Officials plan to have it completed by the end of the year as well.

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