12 Secrets of 311 Operators


It may have lower stakes and fewer life-threatening emergencies than its big sister 911, but for the 20,870,131 New Yorkers who called 311 in 2014, it’s no less vital. In New York City’s 311 call centers, over 350 employees work tirelessly around the clock (you can reach a representative 24-7-365) to answer residents’ burning questions about everything from alternate side parking to a lack of heat in their homes to unwanted animal guests. We spoke with past and present 311 employees to get the 411 on one of the city’s greatest resources.

1. 311 call center representatives (CCRs) spend months training to take your calls.

Once hired (either by passing a civil service exam or participating in CUNY’s collaborative project with 311), CCRs spend four to 10 weeks learning the ropes. They don’t take calls during this time, but become masters of the vast database of New York City-approved resources at their disposal. CCRs use keywords to search the system, called Siebel, for ways to help direct callers to the departments that can best address their needs. As 311 Communications Director Shaleem Thompson told us, “We don’t offer advice to our customers. All the information we provide are approved content from City Agencies.”

During training, the CCRs also learn proper telephone etiquette, protocol, and what to do if the call takes a turn for the strange or serious.

2. There’s an “escalation line” for when things get out of hand.

A former 311 employee, who worked as a CCR for a year and a half, says that when calls venture into uncharted territory, they are patched through to what’s known as the “escalation line.” A common reason a CCR would ask the escalation line to take over is a lewd or “inappropriate” overture from the caller. In one instance, the former 311 CCR explains, a man called to say that his neighbors were having sex, and he could hear them through his apartment’s thin walls. “And he starts groaning and it’s just becoming clear what’s happening. And he’s like, ‘Will you stay on the line with me?’” the CCR says. “And I was like, ‘Escalation line!’ I hit the extension and patched them through.”

3. There are 58 different things you can say that will get you transferred to 911.

If a 311 CCR suspects an actual emergency, he or she is required to patch the caller through to 911. The service provides its representatives with a list of 58 items that, if mentioned by the caller, precipitate a mandatory transfer to 911. While some of the mandatory transfer items seem commonsensical (a report of abuse or harassment, an injury, or a suspected gas leak), some are a bit more head-scratching. Mentioning a “squeegee in progress,” “ticket scalping,” or “foul odor from unknown source” will get you patched through to 911.

Once a 311 CCR connects with 911, he or she remains on the line for the entirety of the call, acting as a witness as well as being available to answer any questions the 911 operator may have.

4. More calls come from Brooklyn than any other borough.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, New York City’s most populated borough is responsible for the most calls to 311, claiming 31 percent of calls in 2014. Falling in line behind are Queens (23.3 percent), Manhattan (21.9 percent), the Bronx (18.4 percent), and Staten Island (5.4 percent).

5. CCRs take thousands of calls each day.

While 311 averages 50,000 calls a day, the number varies greatly depending on the weather, holidays, and service announcements, Thompson says. The 2014 record for most calls in a single day is 239,203. The most calls handled by a single representative in 2014 is a staggering 22,809.

6. Questions about alternate side parking dominate the phone lines.

Call center representatives agree that New Yorkers are more baffled by the complexities of alternate side parking than any other topic. Tahiem Tomlin, a call center rep for almost two years, says that other FAQs vary by season, with the winter being dominated by heating complaints and tax questions. Callers also often have questions about how to deal with parking tickets and what certain street signs mean. Unfortunately, the former 311 representative points out, CCRs aren’t allowed to give guidance on these topics; they’re not covered in the Siebel computer system.

7. Call center reps are scored on their call-taking abilities.

The CCRs have weekly review sessions with their supervisors, during which their calls are given scores based on quality and effectiveness as well as following protocol. Representatives gain points for things like using standard language (“Thank you for calling 311”), providing the correct information, handling the call in a timely manner, speaking with a courteous tone, and offering the 311 website. Call center reps also lose points for infractions or, if the mistake is deemed serious enough—like being rude, failing to transfer to 911, or providing information not found in the Siebel system—they can “fail a call.”

8. CCRs must remain professional at all times.

“I had a call come in, and it was from my dad,” Angelique Pantoja, a CCR for nearly five years, says. “I introduced myself and he says that he’s looking for bus and subway information. It took him a minute for him to realize it was my name, and he goes, ‘Is this Angelique? Is this my daughter?’ I responded by saying, ‘Sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about’ and gave him the information he wanted.”

9. The urban legends are true: A call to 311 proved there really are crocodiles in New York City.

Pantoja remembers one of the most surprising calls she’s ever gotten: A caller who claimed to have found a crocodile in her garage. “It was very interesting because I wasn’t sure if she meant a real crocodile or a fake one, or a little lizard and perhaps she was being a little dramatic,” Pantoja says. “But they confirmed that it was a real crocodile. They were doing something in their basement, and they said something moved.”

10. Call center reps save lives ...

While all emergencies are ultimately transferred to 911, the 311 call center reps are often the first point of contact for people reporting a crime or injury. “I helped break up a child prostitution ring operating out of Brooklyn and transferred the call to 911,” the former CCR we spoke with said. “The customer had called about two girls, and both were under 12 years old. The caller said the mother was selling her daughters to make ends meet.”

11. ... And truly want to help.

While calling 311 can at times be frustrating—the caller must sit through a standard introduction (which, we now know, earns the CCR points), the CCR is prohibited from providing answers to many questions, and the caller may ultimately be transferred to an unresponsive department—residents of New York can take solace in the fact that most CCRs sincerely want to help. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for example, CCRs worked long shifts in order to make sure New Yorkers had someone to call. With public transportation suspended for days, many representatives were driven to work in Department of Corrections busses—the kinds usually used to transport prisoners—after walking miles to the nearest bus stop.

“Even these hardened veterans, these city veterans who have been doing it for 20, 30 years, even they care,” a former representative says. “I think a lot of call takers just want the city to be able to expand its resources and help people in a more efficient way.”

12. Call center reps are not allowed to hang up the phone.

The former representative tells us that some of her most rewarding moments at 311 were spent speaking with people, often elderly, who were just looking for a friendly voice. “Sometimes they’ll just tell you about their life, and after that you’ll feel like you helped them unload a little bit.” she says. “Life is so hard in the city. I think people just like having some kind of 24-hour line where they can call and hear a human voice.”

Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
10 Monster Facts About Pacific Rim
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures took a gamble on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster/robot slugfest. Since it wasn’t based on a preexisting franchise, it lacked a built-in fanbase. That can be a serious drawback in our current age of blockbuster remakes and reboots. The movie underperformed domestically; in America, it grossed just over $100 million against its $180 million budget. Yet Pacific Rim was a huge hit overseas and acquired enough fans to earn itself a sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which arrives in theaters this week. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the movie that started it all.


Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Warner Bros.

One foggy day in 2007, Beacham—who’d recently moved to California—was walking along Santa Monica Beach. As he looked out at the Ferris wheel on the city’s eponymous pier, he pictured a looming sea monster. Then he imagined an equally large robot gearing up to fight the beast. “They just sort of materialized out of the fog, these vast godlike things,” Beacham said. He decided to pursue the concept further after coming up with the idea of human co-pilots who’d need to operate their robot as a team, which added a new thematic dimension.

“I didn’t know I had something I wanted to write until I realized these robots are driven by two pilots, and what happens when one of those people dies? What happens to the leftovers? Then it became a story about loss, moving on after loss, and dealing with survivor’s guilt," Beacham said. "That made the monsters scarier because now you care about the people who are in these robots.”


Pacific Rim was picked up by Legendary Pictures and handed over to director Guillermo del Toro. A huge fan of monster cinema, del Toro enthusiastically co-wrote the final screenplay with Beacham. Sixteen concept artists were hired to sketch original robot and creature designs for the film. “We would get together every day like kids and draw all day,” del Toro told the New York Daily News. “We designed about a hundred Kaijus and about a hundred Jaegers and every week we would do an American Idol and we would vote [some of] them out.”


In “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats,” the tenth episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's sixth season, Charlie Day’s character gives us a darkly comedic monologue about rodent extermination. Little did the actor know that the performance would open a big opportunity for him. Impressed by the rat speech, del Toro offered Day the part of Dr. Newton Geizler, Pacific Rim’s socially-inept kaiju expert. “He said to himself, ‘That’s my guy. That guy should be in my next movie because if he killed rats, he can kill the monster,’” Day recalled during an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the movie set, del Toro often joked about how much he enjoys It’s Always Sunny. As a way of repaying his director, Day helped get del Toro a minor role in the series.


Most of the film’s special effects were computer-generated, but not everything was digital. For the robot cockpit scenes, del Toro had his team build the interior of a full-scale Jaeger head. The finished product stood four stories tall and weighed 20 tons. And like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell, it was designed to rock around violently on its platform via a network of hydraulics. Once inside, the actors were forced to don 40-pound suits of armor. Then the crew strapped their feet into an apparatus that Charlie Hunnam has compared to a high-resistance elliptical machine.

Certain shots also required del Toro to dump gallons of water all over his exhausted, physically-strained stars. So yeah, the experience wasn’t much fun. “We saw every one of the actors break down on that set except for the female lead actress Rinko Kikuchi," del Toro said. "She’s the only actor that didn’t snap."


Del Toro wanted Gipsy Danger, his ‘bot, to have the self-confident air of a wild west gunslinger. To that end, he and concept artist Oscar Chichoni developed a swaggering gait that was based on John Wayne’s signature hip movements. The Jaeger’s Art Deco-like design was influenced by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.


Hailed as the “fortieth greatest guitarist of all time” by Rolling Stone, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello rocked the MTV generation with hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” Pacific Rim bears his mark as well. The film’s lead composer was Ramin Djawadi, whose other works include the Game of Thrones theme. Wanting to add a “rock element” to the Pacific Rim soundtrack, he and del Toro reached out to Morello. The guitarist didn’t need much persuading.

“When they asked me to put some giant robot riffs and screaming underwater monster licks on the film score, I was all in,” Morello said. Djwadi was pleased with the rocker's contributions to the project. As he told the press: “Tom’s unique style and sounds really defined our robots.”


A definite highlight of this movie is Gipsy Danger’s duel with the winged kaiju Otachi in downtown Hong Kong. Both characters were computer-generated, as were the majority of the streets, cars, and towers in this epic sequence. However, there is one moment which was at least partly realized with practical effects. Gipsy punches through the wall of an office building early in the fight. We see her fist rip through a series of cubicles and gradually decelerate until it lightly taps a chair with just enough force to set off a Newton’s Cradle desktop toy. For that shot, effects artists at 32Ten Studios constructed a miniature office building interior featuring 1/4-scale desks, cubicles, and padded chairs. The level of detail here was amazing: 32Ten’s staff adorned each individual workspace with lamps, computers, wastebaskets, and teeny, tiny Post-it notes.


Rinko Kikuchi in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Audiences reacted strongly to Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, who inspired an alternative to the famous Bechdel test. Some critics praised the culmination of her relationship with Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam). Although it’s common practice for the male and female leads in an action flick to end their movie with a smooch, Mori and Beckett share a platonic hug as Pacific Rim draws to a close. Del Toro revealed that he shot three different versions of that final scene. “We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues,” del Toro said.


At the end of the credits, there’s a tribute that reads: “This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.” Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013—two months before Pacific Rim’s release. A great stop-motion animator, he breathed life into such creatures as the towering Rhedosaurus in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Ishiro Honda was another giant of the kaiju genre, having directed Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and numerous Godzilla films. Del Toro has great respect for both men. When Harryhausen died, the director said, “I lost a member of my family today, a man who was as present in my childhood as any of my relatives.” He also adores the Japanese monster classics and says he’d love to see a Pacific Rim-Godzilla crossover someday. Maybe it’ll happen.


If you’re not familiar with the practice of “Sweding,” let us fill you in: The 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind is about two co-workers at a VHS rental store who accidentally erase every tape in stock. Hoping to save their skins, they create ultra low-budget remakes of all the films they’ve destroyed using cardboard sets and cheap costumes. It’s a process these guys call “Sweding” as a ploy to convince everyone that their (unintentionally hilarious) knockoffs were produced in Sweden. Since Be Kind, Rewind was released, Sweding has become a legitimate art form.

When Pacific Rim’s first trailer debuted in 2013, YouTubers Brian Harley and Brodie Mash created a shot-for-shot, Sweded duplicate of the preview. Instead of state-of-the-art CG effects, their version used toy helicopters, duct-tape monster masks, and an ocean of packing peanuts—and del Toro loved it. At WonderCon 2013, he praised the video, saying that it inspired the editing used in Pacific Rim’s third trailer. Harley and Mash happened to be at the same gathering. When del Toro met the comedic duo, he exclaimed “I loved it! My daughters loved it, we watched it a bunch of times!” Then he invited the Sweding duo to attend Pacific Rim’s premiere in Hollywood.

5 Ways to Define a Sandwich, According to the Law

It’s easy to say what a sandwich is. Grilled cheese? Definitely a sandwich. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato? There’s no question. Things start to get messy when you specify what a sandwich isn’t. Is a hot dog a sandwich? What about a burrito, or an open-faced turkey melt?

The question of sandwich-hood sounds like something a monk might ponder on a mountaintop. But the answer has real-world implications. On several occasions, governments have ruled on the food industry’s right to use the delectable label. Now, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—pop culture icon, scrunchie connoisseur, and Supreme Court Justice—has weighed in on the matter.

When pressed on the hot-button issue as to whether a hot dog is a sandwich while appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Ginsburg proved her extreme judiciousness by throwing the question back at Colbert and asking for his definition of sandwich before making a ruling. Her summation? A hot dog fits Colbert's definition of a sandwich, and therefore can be considered one.

While RBG's ruling may not be an official one, it matches Merriam-Webster's bold declaration that a hot dog is a sandwich (even if the Hot Dog Council disagrees). Officially, here’s where the law stands on the great sandwich debate.


Hot dogs are often snagged in the center of the sandwich semantics drama. Despite fitting the description of a food product served on a bread-like product, many sandwich purists insist that hot dogs deserve their own category. California joins Merriam-Webster in declaring that a hot dog is a sandwich nonetheless. The bold word choice appears in the state’s tax law, which mentions “hot dog and hamburger sandwiches” served from “sandwich stands or booths.” Applying the sandwich label to burgers is less controversial, but it’s still worth debating.


When Qdoba threatened to encroach on the territory of a Panera Bread in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, the owners of the bakery franchise fought back. They claimed the Mexican chain’s arrival would violate their lease agreement with the White City Shopping Center—specifically the clause that prohibits the strip mall from renting to other sandwich restaurants. “We were surprised at the suit because we think it’s common sense that a burrito is not a sandwich,” Jeff Ackerman, owner of the Qdoba franchise group, told The Boston Globe.

The Worcester County Superior Court agreed. When the issue went before the court in 2006, Cambridge chef and food writer Christopher Schlesinger testified against Panera [PDF], saying, “I know of no chef or culinary historian who would call a burrito a sandwich. Indeed, the notion would be absurd to any credible chef or culinary historian.”

Justice Jeffrey A. Locke ruled that Qdoba would be allowed to move into the shopping center citing an entry in Merriam-Webster as the most damning evidence against Panera’s case. “The New Webster Third International Dictionary describes a ‘sandwich’ as ‘two thin pieces of bread, usually buttered, with a thin layer (as of meat, cheese, or savory mixture) spread between them,’” he said. “Under this definition and as dictated by common sense, this court finds that the term ‘sandwich’ is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos, and quesadillas.”


If you want to know the definition of a certain dish, the officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are good people to ask. It’s their job to make sure that the nation’s supply of meat is correctly labeled. When it comes to sandwiches, the agency follows strict criteria. “A sandwich is a meat or poultry filling between two slices of bread, a bun, or a biscuit,” Mark Wheeler, who works in food and safety at the USDA, told NPR. His definition comes from the Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book used by the department (the USDA only covers the “labeling of meat, poultry, and egg products,” while the FDA handles everything else, which is why the USDA's definition excludes things like grilled cheese). Not included under their umbrella of foodstuff served between bread are burritos, wraps, and hot dogs.


The USDA’s definition may not be as simple and elegant as it seems. A sandwich is one thing, but a “sandwich-like product” is different territory. The same labeling policy book Mark Wheeler referred to when describing a sandwich lumps burritos into this vague category. Fajitas “may also be” a sandwich-like product, as long as the strips of meat in question come bundled in a tortilla. Another section of the book lists hot dogs and hamburgers as examples of sandwich-type products when laying out inspection policies for pre-packaged dinners. So is there an example of a meat-wrapped-in-carb dish that doesn’t belong to the sandwich family? Apparently strombolis are where the USDA draws the line. The Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book clearly states the product “is not considered a traditional sandwich” [PDF].


When it comes to sandwiches, New York doesn’t discriminate. In a bulletin outlining the state’s tax policy, a description of what constitutes a sandwich warrants its own subhead. The article reads:

“Sandwiches include cold and hot sandwiches of every kind that are prepared and ready to be eaten, whether made on bread, on bagels, on rolls, in pitas, in wraps, or otherwise, and regardless of the filling or number of layers. A sandwich can be as simple as a buttered bagel or roll, or as elaborate as a six-foot, toasted submarine sandwich.”

It then moves on to examples of taxable sandwiches. The list includes items widely-believed to bear the label, like Reubens, paninis, club sandwiches, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Other entries, like burritos, gyros, open-faced sandwiches, and hot dogs, may cause confusion among diners.


More from mental floss studios