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Gina Knepp has worked in high-stress city government jobs for more than two decades. But even though she spent nearly 20 years at the city’s 911 call center and now heads the 311 call center, her sense of humor remains intact.
Knepp, 48, is the division manager of 311. She reflects her humor in certain activities – designating a day to wear tin foil hats – and in her office décor, which includes a sign that reads: “Dumb should hurt.”
The 311 center, which handles a wide variety of queries about city services, has lost about 65 percent of its budget to cuts in the last couple years, she said.
Though her division is understaffed and 311’s budget is tight, Knepp conveyed great enthusiasm about her work in a sit-down interview with The Sacramento Press on Friday.
SP: What are some of the key differences between 911 calls and 311 calls?
GK: Oh gosh, they’re huge. Although, from the customer’s perspective, whether they’ve just been in a car accident or their water pipe broke, it’s an emergency to them. We speak to a lot of the same kind of excited people.
At 911, you’re in a hurry. And you need to get the immediate facts as quickly as you can to get an officer started, or a paramedic started. So, it’s quick. It’s in, it’s out. There’s not a lot of time to have social amenities with your caller ... The average 911 call doesn’t last more than 60 seconds. People don’t realize that.
Here, our average talk time is 2.5 minutes. And we have some customers that require five minutes of our time. Here, we’re given the opportunity to spend a little more time with the customer, which is kinda cool – which they don’t get to do at 911.
The multitasking and (the) quick, prompt decision-making is much more challenging at 911 than it is here. We do have a dispatch position, but typically, no one is dying. So the sense of urgency is different.
SP: Why spend more time with the 311 callers?
GK: Your average customer/constituent really only calls the city once a year. Most people only call 911 once in their lifetime. So, we know that we’re going to talk to every single customer at least once a year. That should be a good interaction.
Because it’s not just about the stray dog; we’re representing the city of Sacramento. And we get an opportunity to show that customer what the city is about. And my goal is always that it be very professional and friendly.
They’re the ones that decide our fate. They approve ballot measures. They vote our elected officials in and out. And we work for them. We are public servants. So I just think it’s really important to give them that little bit of time.
SP: What are some of the things you really like about 311? What are some of the things you really liked about 911?
GK: 911: It’s exciting. You get to know everybody’s business firsthand. Most people read about it in the paper. The dispatcher is actually present, at least in an audio fashion. When someone calls and says – “I just shot my wife” – you can’t get much closer to the scene than that.
You’re the first person in the chain of evidence ... (In) most domestic violence cases, the audio tape is played in the courtroom in prosecution. I mean, how cool is that? To be part of that? You’re the link between the victim, or the criminals, and the responders. It’s just an amazing job.
Despite the sad, tragic things that I heard when I was there, it’s an amazing feeling, I think, to know that you ... improved someone’s life or you saved someone’s life.
311 was like starting all over for me. It was a whole new profession with a whole new set of people. Because unfortunately, at the police department, you’re kind of sequestered. And your world really involves the police department. And you forget that there are other people and other things going on in the city of Sacramento.
So, it was kind of a like a rebirth coming out – and getting to know and understanding all the different departments and what they do and how everybody’s really interconnected. I love the fact that I get to have conversations with practically every division manager in the city, and know what’s happening in their respective units, because we touch it. I think the citizens are fun – but I’ve always liked talking to people on the phone, even the mad ones.
It’s challenging. It’s never the same. At 911, you had one topic. Here, we’ve got cats and dogs and potholes and Fairytale Town and broken water mains and shoes on phone lines and craziness. People call about the craziest things.
SP: Are there any (crazy calls) that you can share?
GK: This lady called because she wanted to know if you could get rabies from eating the tongue of a dead raccoon. Because her son and his little friends did. They actually ate the tongue — I don’t know why. But she was panicked, obviously. They were like 10 (or) 12 – little kids. Yeah, that’s a weird one.
SP: Can you get rabies that way?
GK: Well, you have to test it for rabies...but most likely, you could, yes.
SP: What are some of the most common 311 calls that you receive?
GK: The No. 1 thing has to do with solid waste. And the No. 2 issue in the city of Sacramento, across all districts, is animal control. Primarily strays.
SP: You used to work for 911 and now you work for 311. What is it like to be the ultimate “go-to” person?
GK: Sometimes I feel like (the advice columnist) Ann Landers. I do. People will come to me with the wildest things that they haven’t been able to figure out, even in other departments ... I like it. For whatever reason, I kind of get stoked figuring things out. Being the one who can put the last puzzle piece together to solve something. It makes my job interesting. And everybody wants to be wanted, right? So, it’s cool.
Photos of Knepp by Brandon Darnell.
Photo: Knepp's office is short on space but big on zaniness.
Kathleen Haley is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.