Hurricane Juan puts Halifax IT through its paces

It may take months for Halifax to fully recover from the effects of last month’s Hurricane Juan, but the disaster provided an early test for technology that could help the city get through its next crisis, an official says.

Shortly after the local government declared a state of emergency

in late September, municipal staffers knew they would be swamped with an extraordinarily high number of calls. They were right: Over an eight-day period, Halifax’s call centre took 35,000 calls, including 26,000 service requests. According to Geri Kaiser, director of shared services with the Regional Municipality of Halifax’s chief administrative office, the government was able to handle approximately 23,000 of those requests, thanks to a “”citizen relationship management”” software package installed more than a year ago.

“”We were like the voice in the dark for some people,”” she said. “”Our normal call activity increased 353 per cent. Part of dealing with that was putting on a front-send message to help direct the calls. We anticipated some questions.””

The city’s CRM project began with a search for an to an outside provider to replace the legacy system that handled property permits, Kaiser said. It chose Mississauga, Ont.-based Hansen Canada, which recommended a customer service module that would allow the organization to handle a variety of other service calls. While the province deals with social, health and educational services, almost everything Halifax does is related to pieces of property, Kaiser said, which covers a wide spectrum of requests.

Prior to the Hansen software, those requests were jotted down on pink slips of paper which were dropped off to the supervisor in charge of that service and left in an in-basket.

“”Once a caller made a request, there was no reliable way of finding out who took the call, who it was sent to, and how it was resolved from a customer perspective,”” she said.

The ability to route calls electronically to the appropriate service unit became particularly important during Hurricane Juan, Kaiser said, because the nature of the crisis demanded immediate response times and a way of making sure requests weren’t left unattended.

“”We were trying to anticipate what would happen — like trees falling on houses,”” she said. “”One thing we knew would come in were calls from people needing shelter, comfort or food, so we set up a code for that.””

Hansen Canada president Rob Corazzola said Halifax’s Hurricane Juan experience provided a unique example of how work can be driven around a specific event rather than the usual issues around property, water or sewage.

“”In a lot of cases there is a wealth of information that results in fragmented systems,”” he said. “”The big issue for cities is in their corporate addressing systems — they might have one for planning, permitting, water billing or property assessment. They have to figure out what will be the standard address database.””

Kaiser said the Hansen technology was first introduced to the call centre, customer service bureau and dispatchers but is also being rolled out to city councillors, who also get a lot of calls.

“”The whole change management piece is something we’re still dealing with,”” she said. “”The call takers and dispatchers have really welcomed the opportunity, though, because often they’ll get a call back from a client, and now they can look back and see what happened.””

Hansen, which used to sell off-the-shelf software via mail order, started honing its best practices as it developed more experience in serving local government, Corazzola said.

“”It seems to be at the top of a lot of agendas,”” he said. “”It used to be primarily operational issues, like water and sewer and streets. In last five years, there’s been more of a citizen focus. It’s not just about handling problems but the ability to conduct business anywhere, instead of just city hall.””

Kaiser said the next steps include Web-enabling its services so that citizens will be able to initiate requests online.

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