Sometimes calling Pittsburgh's 311 service line is better than dialing 911. Both are help hot lines, but a recent event reminded me that when it's open for calls on weekdays, you just can't beat the 311 service for non-emergency attention.
It came as we left for vacation the morning after a warm, stormy night of 50-mph gusts. The car had been packed for vacation the night before with the same care that a NASA mission might observe, and all points were a go for early-morning travel.
By the time morning broke, the storm had greatly dissipated. After a quick breakfast, it was off to the garage. The house was locked, iron turned off, refrigerator door closed.
We turned left out of the garage and drove past three houses. Wait, what? Why was there a tree lying across the alley? It wasn't there last night, was it?
After my boyfriend sculpted out a tunnel-type access by breaking off some branches, we could pass the car through the new portal. All was well. The storm, the night and the fallen tree were left behind us. We were certain all would be back to normal when we returned, as a neighbor would attend to the precarious obstruction.
This is where the 311 story begins, as upon our return it was apparent that everyone had simply been using our improv tunnel. The alley is a fairly active one, used not only by residents but municipal workers, short-cut takers and dog walkers. The route is fair game to cars, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians and pets.
This new tunnel would have been used by countless people and animals for the week that we were gone. Charming as the tunnel seemed, it also was a hazard because one limb was clinging to the trunk by a sliver of life. A jumping squirrel could have instigated the final trigger to collapse.
It was time to call the Pittsburgh 311 non-emergency hot line. In the past I had used the number only to report potholes, which were usually repaired within three days from the call. One quick call always resolved the problem. How wonderful. But I wasn't sure that my call would be acknowledged for this type of non-pothole request.
The 311 operator was very courteous and polite. He was made aware that we did attempt to contact the homeowner where the tree fell, but no one appeared to be home. I was assured promptly that the concern would be sent on to the appropriate department to be addressed.
"Is that all?" the dispatcher asked. (Of course, I thought this was city government-speak for, "We'll probably get to it before the next tornado comes through." After all, it wasn't a pothole this time.)
"Yes, I think that's it -- tree obstructing alley," I concisely reiterated.
Then, in the time it took to get a cup of coffee and sit down to read the morning paper, the sound of a chain saw started in the alley. It was within a half-hour of my phone call! Could this be?
The neighbors must have come home and begun trimming the fallen tree. I thought I'd better call 311 back and tell them the problem was resolved, and the city didn't have to come out after all.
As I picked up the phone, I looked in the alley. I immediately hung up.
It was a city municipal truck in the alley, and in just that much time the tree was cleared and all debris removed. The alley was looking less picturesque but definitely safer.
As the 311 Response Center website states: "We are happy to help with any non-emergency City of Pittsburgh concerns or questions. Requests can be sent anonymously if you do not require a response. Please keep in mind that the more detailed information you can provide, the better we will be able to assist."
And the city does seem to respond. The workers are respectful and helpful, as are the telephone operators. I suspect they may even be whistling while they work, but it's quietly and under their breath.
This certainly is just one of the many reasons that Pittsburgh retains such high ratings regarding livability and quality of life.
In all of my travels and all of my road trips, I remain amazed by my own backyard.
Catherine Brunetti of Shadyside, formerly a small business owner, can be reached at email@example.com.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Local Dispatch" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.