Have you ever thought about calling 911, but felt like your “emergency” wasn’t urgent enough? Depending on your situation, the non-emergency hotline (311) could be the number you need. Calling 311 can get you help from local authorities and government services, but only use it during situations where life or property is not threatened. Learn more about the non-emergency hotline, when to call 311 instead of 911, and how 311 can help support you through the not-so-urgent emergencies in your life.
When to Call 311 vs. 911
In general, 911 is for life-threatening situations. A fire, a car accident, a medical emergency, or a crime in progress warrant a 911 call. As the Chicago Police put it, when the “bad guys” are still at the scene, 911 is the number to call. If the situation is dire and could get significantly worse if it’s not helped immediately, call 911 to have police, fire, or EMS personnel dispatched to the scene ASAP.
If the situation is not urgent and won’t harm someone’s life or property if left unaddressed for a few hours or days (or in some cases, weeks), call 311. If you’re unsure, always err on the safe side and dial 911.
What Can You Call 311 For?
We’ve established that 911 is only for serious, extremely time-sensitive situations. So, what can you call 311 for? Initially used as an informational hotline for citizens, 311 now serves as a broad-reaching non-emergency number that can be called nearly anywhere in the U.S. for non-urgent situations that require support from a government official or local agency.
Here are a few examples of when to call 311:
- You need to file a police report for a minor fender bender or hit-and-run car accident with no injuries. The accident is not blocking traffic on a major roadway (i.e., it happened on a neighborhood street).
- You notice a clogged storm drain on a city street, and there’s standing water in the road long after a rainstorm.
- You want to report a street light that’s out, a stray animal, vandalism, or roadway damage (such as a pothole).
- You want to file a noise complaint while you’re at home.
- You’d like a police officer to conduct a welfare check for a senior citizen or another resident in the community.
- You spot a large tree branch downed in a park or other public space.
- You need information about public utilities in your city, like trash pickup or water services.
- Your need to file a complaint about your landlord.
This list is not all-encompassing, so it’s always a good idea to check with your local authorities and see what kind of resources and tools you can access via 311 in your area.
When you call 311, you may not receive an immediate resolution to your problem. In fact, you may not even speak to a real human. Many cities use an automated call system or even a texting line for 311. In some places, 311 data has become a way to improve city services.
For instance, New York City tracks the location, topic, and response time of 311 calls to determine where more resources may be needed to serve citizens better, reports Harvard University’s Ash Center. Suppose it takes 20 minutes to respond to a report of a road blocked by snow but takes more than a month to resolve a damaged city light pole. In that case, government officials may consider adding more crew members to its infrastructure repair team to decrease the light pole response time.
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