published Friday, June 21st, 2013

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke gets earful at 311 call center


by Cliff Hightower
Mayor Andy Berke, right, answers calls, while Jodi Pierce assists him  at Chattanooga's 3-1-1 Call Center on the forst floor of the City Hall Annex on Thursday. Pierce is a costumer service representative for the 3-1-1 Call Center.
Mayor Andy Berke, right, answers calls, while Jodi Pierce assists him at Chattanooga's 3-1-1 Call Center on the forst floor of the City Hall Annex on Thursday. Pierce is a costumer service representative for the 3-1-1 Call Center.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.

BY THE NUMBERS

* 3 million: Number of calls the Chattanooga 311 Center has handled since 2003

* 5,000: Average calls a week

* 8: Number of operators at the center

Source: Chattanooga

On Thursday, Andy Berke went where no Chattanooga mayor has gone before.

Berke set out to find out what it's like for the eight people who answer the city's 311 information/help line and to see what types of calls come in.

He donned a headset, took his seat in the call center and waited for his first call.

Buzzzz!

"Thank you for calling the city of Chattanooga," he said. "I'm Andy Berke, mayor of the city."

A few seconds went by, the mayor listening.

"I'm at 311 handling calls today," he said in answer to a question from the caller.

In his half hour on the job, Berke heard a resident complain about concrete blocks in his yard, a man whose daughter needed to go to City Court and a resident looking for health care transportation. He was able to get answers for all of his callers.

The call center opened 10 years ago, but this was the first time a mayor answered calls, said Liz Henley, call center manager.

Would she hire him?

"Oh, yeah," she said.

Sitting next to Berke was call center representative Jodi Pierce. She said she usually answers 700 to 800 calls a week, and she helped the mayor navigate through some of the stickier moments.

At one point, Berke took a call about construction blocks. There was back and forth about whether the blocks were on the sidewalk or on the man's property.

Eventually, Pierce whispered to Berke that a city employee would go look at it. Berke relayed that to the caller, who seemed satisfied with the answer.

"How long would it take for them to check on it?" asked Jeff Cannon, the city's chief innovation officer.

"They will go out today," Pierce responded.

Berke said afterward that some of the callers were a bit shocked that the mayor of Chattanooga had answered their calls. Some said they thought they had called 311. Berke told them they had.

"There were a few gasps and moans of disbelief," Berke said, laughing.

By the time his duty ended, Berke had answered five calls in all.

On average, the call center receives about 5,000 calls per week.

Only 4,995 to go.

Contact staff writer Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480. Follow him at twitter.com/cliffhightower or facebook.com/cliff.hightower.

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