Inside the 311 war room

Here's how a desperate call to 311 can lead to thawed pipes and patched potholes


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In the fight against potholes and frozen waterlines -- in the winter that never ends -- the battle begins with a single call to Winnipeg's 'war room.'

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/03/2014 (3289 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the fight against potholes and frozen waterlines — in the winter that never ends — the battle begins with a single call to Winnipeg’s ‘war room.’

No fatigues here, though. No orders barked. No blinking radar screen covering a wall in a dimly-lit room.

A casually dressed operator, one among dozens with telephone headsets glued to their heads in Winnipeg’s 311 centre in downtown’s Cityplace, takes the call.

It’s mixed among the queries asking what time buses will get a person somewhere, questions about their property tax bill, and traffic lights flashing red. The homeowner is concerned that the water has stopped flowing from his taps.

With a voice of calm, Lucy (not her real name) asks him several questions as she taps keys on her computer and clicks a mouse over various pages on her screen.

It doesn’t take long before Lucy tells the relieved homeowner it’s not frozen pipes but a water-main break a block or so away that has stopped the flow of water. City crews are already on it.

Nearby, another homeowner speaking to a 311 operator isn’t so lucky. His water isn’t flowing and there are no water-main breaks nearby.

The operator, using a mixture of humour and concern, takes down his information on a computerized form and asks if he needs water jugs delivered by firefighters or if he can pick them up. The father says he is home by himself with a young child so he opts for delivery.

As well, he’s told to go to the city’s website to download a consent form he can use to get his neighbour’s permission to hook up a temporary water supply.

Melanie Swenarchuk, the city’s 311 Contact Centre manager, said the computerized form automatically becomes the work order for the water and waste department when the operator presses the send button.

Swenarchuk said the only difference between a frozen-pipe call and a pothole one — none of which came in while the Free Press listened in thanks to a dump of snow that had temporarily covered them over — is the work order automatically goes to a different department, Public Works, to handle.

311 operator Kyle Smoley said it doesn’t matter whether it’s a call for a bus route or traffic light problem “all roads lead back to our service forms.”

Requests to thaw frozen pipes go to clerical staff with the water and waste department on Plinguet Street. For pothole calls, staff at one of three public works facilities responsible for different section of the city get the computerized form.


— — —

Geoffrey Patton, the city’s manager of engineering services in the Water and Waste Department, said requests via 311 trigger the dispatch of an inspection crew within a day, but the actual thawing equipment won’t arrive for some time because of the unprecedented number of frozen-pipe calls the city is receiving this year.

“The crew goes out to confirm no water,” he said.

“Then they look at the water meter to say, ‘yes it is outside the building.’ Then they put in for a thaw attempt. That’s all they do during the first visit. In a normal year, it could be hours or a day you would be without water. But not this year.”

Because of the high number of frozen-pipe calls, the city initiated an additional destination for work orders: the engineering division. These workers would normally be on major pipe and construction projects. Now they are being tasked to install temporary hose connections between neighbouring houses.

“People were going days without water,” Patton said. “Now you talk to your neighbour, get a form signed, and if both of you are home you can get a temporary water supply. It is reduced pressure, but you have water.”

David Shaw, water and waste’s customer technical services supervisor, said the process is so quick, “if you have a co-operating neighbour the crew can turn it around in hours.”

Patton said the light blue hose, a touch larger in diameter than a regular garden hose, is simply screwed on the taps outside both homes. The owner of the house formerly without water is also asked to keep water continuously flowing in a sink to reduce the chances the temporary pipe will freeze.

As for thawing out the pipes, the city has three specialized machines working 24 hours a day going to properties to thaw pipes.


— — —

This year’s pothole season is so bad it will likely last well into the spring and “this will be one of the worst springs,” said Jim Berezowsky, the City of Winnipeg’s street maintenance manager. The city budgets $1.5 million to fix potholes annually.

Berezowsky said his department’s response to 311 calls about potholes is markedly different than the water department’s response to frozen pipes.

“(The caller) is very rightly identifying something and making the city aware of a concern,” he said. “But our actual method for potholes is based on our street priority network.”

Picture the city as a pie cut up into three pieces by the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Public Works has main service yards in each section. Each service area is further divided in up to seven areas covered by zone foremen who drive around checking road conditions, including potholes, for all the streets in their areas.

“They all make notes and mark them on a map. It’s from this that they’ll assign work based on our (street) priority level,” Berezowsky said.

Currently, the city dispatches up to 12 pothole-patching crews every day, including three transporter trucks to carry the cold mix asphalt to the streets being patched. Once the mercury consistently stays above freezing, the city’s fleet of pothole patching trucks will fan out across the city.

Berezowsky said potholes, even on the busiest priority one streets, are still ranked by the zone foreman to determine how quickly they need to be patched, including if they are found in the rutted area of the lane where vehicle wheels mainly run.

“We want to minimize the weaving back and forth.”

The zone foreman is also responsible for checking 311 service requests and getting a response back if needed.

“People may think the city is waiting for people to call in, but we’re set up like an emergency centre, with a planned set up,” Berezowsky said.

“We do our effort in a plan.”

Berezowsky said if somebody calls in and says a piece of metal rebar is sticking out of the roadbed, that is quickly fixed.

“That’s a safety risk so we’ll get out there right away.”


— — —

Coun. Justin Swandel, public works committee chairman, is being updated twice a day on the city’s frozen water pipes — not so much with potholes.

Beyond that, Swandel says he trusts civic staff to lead the city’s response.

“I don’t need to sit in their laps. Usually I get email updates. If something is breaking, I get a phone call. I’ll ask what are we doing and what equipment we’re using, but they know their job and how to do it.”

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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