December 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 6 // Tools of the Trade // 6TOT1

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Master Gardener Phone Response Team

A phone response team (PRT) of Master Gardener volunteers was developed to provide Delaware residents with consistent Delaware Cooperative Extension approved answers to horticultural inquiries rapidly. The ingredients needed to make this organization succeed are discussed. The PRT answers some 4,000 calls per year and has a retention of members of over 80% for three years or more. For every hour of Cooperative Extension involvement, seven hours of time is volunteered.

Don Patterson
Master Gardener
Delaware Cooperative Extension
New Castle County
Newark, Delaware
Internet address:

In late 1989, a proposal to set-up a phone response team was made and jointly approved by Cooperative Extension (CE) and the New Castle County Master Gardeners (MG) Steering Committee. The purpose of the team was to provide residents with the most current, consistent, and accurate information from CE on a broad range of horticultural problems as expeditiously as possible.

To accomplish this goal, an assessment was made concluding that a dedicated team of MG was needed to provide proper responses to residents with minimal back-up from CE agents. Timely special training of these MG was essential, and a phone manual designed for rapid perusal was needed so that consistently correct CE approved information could be quickly transmitted verbally to residents.

As this new organization came together, it was essential to develop a phone manual for rapid response. This manual would assure that the phone response team (PRT) would have the most up- to-date information to provide residents and that their replies would be consistent and CE approved. This effort commenced in 1989, and in 1994 the major input was completed. The current 390 page manual is divided into five sections: ornamentals, lawns, vegetables, fruit, and landscape and buildings. Each entry in the manual is printed on a separate loose-leaf page, and the material is organized into short statements for easy scanning. A description of a disease or insect and their effects on the host are listed. Controls are included with treatments and the timing described. In addition, a wide range of cultural information is also included in the manual, including: transplanting, weed control, pruning, fertilization, and selecting a tree-service company.

Concurrently, with development of the manual, the PRT was organized with the preparation of a charter consisting of a purpose, objectives, organization, PRT and CE responsibilities, and PRT assignments and operations. The PRT is a long-term commitment by CE and, as such, requires continuing communication among CE agents and team members for maximum effectiveness.

Team members include men and women who have a wealth of general gardening knowledge. Members are dedicated, motivated, with a willingness to learn and communicate their knowledge to others. However, it is important to keep things simple, straight forward, and free of extraneous detail.

Previously, each telephone message from a resident was answered by a receptionist who filled-out a "call-back" slip. The assigned MG then responded to the slip at a later time. After the PRT had been operating for two years, the receptionist was taken out of the "operations" loop by the installation of a phone answering machine and an independent tape player. The separation of the two machines permitted incoming resident calls to be made continually while a completed tape, which had been removed from the phone answering machine, could be played back as desired. In 1995, a voice mail system was installed, further simplifying operations.

Two-hour training sessions are conducted each month from February through June. Some sessions, conducted by CE agents, emphasize the horticultural problems that could be expected during the next month or two. They have proved effective in preparing members to answer resident questions. In addition, outside guest horticultural specialists come to discuss a variety of subjects including pest control, small animal control, and arborist operations.

Currently, the PRT consists of 20 members including substitutes who complete a three-hour shift every other week, alternating with another member to provide full coverage from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on three afternoons. The team maintains full coverage from mid-March through the end of October. From November 1 through mid-March, a reduced schedule is maintained on a once-per-week basis, since there is a major drop in inquires with the on-set of cooler weather.

Before a resident is called, a team member reviews the specific entry in the manual dealing with the inquiry. Once contact with a resident is made, the team member asks questions to verify the caller's statements and to establish the proper diagnosis. The caller is then given the necessary information to resolve the problem. In a few complex cases, the team member may have to call the resident back in order to refer to other horticultural sources or to contact a CE agent for advice.

Analysis of PRT operations from 1992 through 1994 shows that for every hour of CE involvement seven hours of time is volunteered by members: a good return for CE's investment in training and back-up. Over the past several years, some 4,000 telephone calls per year were completed by the PRT.

The team members have shown real dedication to this effort as evidenced by 80+% of the members serving for three years or more. A valuable bonus of this program is the background and experience gained by the members which are often brought to bear in other MG projects.

To set-up a PRT as described, including preparation and finalization of the manual, took approximately 1,500 hours of MG volunteer time and 300 hours of CE agents time over a three year period. It is estimated that 1,250 hours of the total were used to develop the manual.