How Can 2-1-1 Assist in a Crisis?

In the wake of 9/11, 2-1-1 call centers have expanded their role beyond access to social services to take on new crisis responsibilities.

by Sandra Ray

In July 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designated one of the only remaining "n-1-1" numbers for use by community information and referral (I&R) providers. The successful launch of 2-1-1 in the Metropolitan Atlanta area in 1997 convinced providers around the nation that other I&R programs could utilize the number effectively. Each state's public utilities commission is responsible for ultimate assignment. So far, 19 states have active 2-1-1 call centers, with 26 more, including the District of Columbia, in the negotiation or collaboration phase. Six states are still in the initial phases.

September 11th signaled a new beginning in the I&R field. Instead of focusing strictly on access to social services, many programs are now utilizing their services to assist citizens in the event of a disaster or crisis situation. 2-1-1 makes access to services during a crisis situation even easier than before. For example, instead of advertising a myriad of 1-800 numbers, a single, three-digit telephone number can be advertised and trained call specialists can answer questions efficiently and effectively.

Generally an I&R center will become active in the second phase of a disaster, the relief phase. The response phase should be limited strictly to first responders to a crisis situation, including 9-1-1 services and emergency services personnel. The 2-1-1 center in a community should already have established a protocol with the local 9-1-1 center on how to handle misdirected calls. Other than this, the mode of the 2-1-1 center should be one of readiness for the relief and recovery phase.

How Can 2-1-1 Help?

A 2-1-1 program can play many roles in a disaster situation. Tracking available resources, one of the I&R's primary services, should be emphasized during a crisis. The Alliance for Information an Referral Systems (AIRS) accreditation standards call for I & R programs to update its resources on at least a yearly basis. In addition, 2-1-1 centers should develop a disaster database. The disaster services can be activated as soon as a crisis happens. For example, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army often have arrangements in the local community about which entities can assist with temporary food and shelter. The I&R program should have agreements with the Red Cross and Salvation Army to be aware of services that exist before the crisis happens.

The I&R center should track the usage of these resources and be ready to report them to responders as quickly as possible. During an ongoing crisis, daily contact, if needed, can give specialists accurate information about shelter bed usage, available victims' services and the location of the intake center for disaster relief. During a crisis, this information can change quickly, much too quickly for a computer to track. One center uses a bulletin board to post transient information. Data can be posted as soon as possible, and changed just as fast.

Another critical service is rumor control. In the event of a bioterrorism attack, this role could become increasingly critical. Specialists are trained to give out only factual information without embellishing events reported in the media. This "stick-to-the-facts attitude" comforts callers during a time of high distress. In addition, information about road closures, evacuation procedures and media contacts can also be handled through the 2-1-1 center. Community coordination is the key to providing these services in a coherent, systematic fashion.

A 2-1-1 center can be an effective tool in not only managing volunteers, but also providing assistance about where donations such as household items and money can be given. Specialists can be given the information on a daily basis and route callers to the proper location for donations. Volunteers can discover where help is needed and can plan their time accordingly. Even though most national organizations like American Red Cross and the Salvation Army operate their own campaigns during these times, arrangements can be made in advance to offer call center space to these organizations.

The roles mentioned here are but a few of those that a 2-1-1 center can provide. Each community should explore the existing plan and find new ways to utilize the program's resources in a disaster. Updating community disaster plans on an annual basis can provide the opportunity to include 2-1-1 services.

Texas: A National Model

In 1991, Texas Information and Referral Network (TIRN) was created to form a statewide database of community services. A task force began meeting with various members from around the state. Relationships were formed, but little real progress was made toward making this database a reality.

In 1996, Judy Windler joined TIRN as director and quickly convened a new task force, made up of self-designated members from around the state. A comprehensive access plan developed in the 15 months that followed. In 1998, when Atlanta's 2-1-1 went online, TIRN and the task force joined the FCC petition on a national level. Soon, the plan Texas developed was touted nationally as a model of how to implement a statewide I&R service.

In the fall of 2002, the first 2-1-1 centers in Texas went online. The state is divided into 25 regions, each covered by a comprehensive I&R program called an Area Information Center (AIC) 24 hours per day. Each AIC develops partnerships within the region with smaller I&R programs and community organizations to provide comprehensive, timely service. By the end of 2002, 14 of 25 AICs were providing 2-1-1 services, with the final 11 due to be implemented soon after September 2003. Windler maintains optimism for future program funding, stating, "Our program exemplifies how a true public/private partnership should work. In a crisis situation, state agencies can work closely with the local level, while relating to national disaster management organizations. Once the full state is online, officials in all areas can experience the positive effect of 2-1-1."

Texas has chosen to align itself with disaster management services within the state. Each AIC maintains Memorandums of Understanding with other crisis services in a community and also has produced its own agency disaster plan. In light of the fact that the President of the United States hails from Texas, the potential for terrorism somewhere in the state remains high. For example, the 2-1-1 center in Southeast Texas is networking with other disaster management partners, including 9-1-1, fire and the Homeland Security Office.

Roxanne Smith-Parks, the director of the Southeast Texas Area Agency on Aging, the entity responsible for 2-1-1 in Beaumont, states, "At last report, Beaumont was number three on the list for a possible terrorism attack. Our area also has a high likelihood of flooding or hurricane devastation. Our plan specifies how our calls will be routed in the event that Southeast Texas has to be evacuated for any reason."

The technology behind the 2-1-1 system in Texas provides quick information dissemination. The system uses a sophisticated voice over the Internet (VOIP) system provided by Cisco Systems and hosted by ELoyalty in Austin, Texas. VOIP allows call centers to transfer phone calls from one center to the next with just a routing transfer number. In addition, screen pop-ups can be provided, giving call specialists detailed information about a disaster and how other centers should operate during the situation. Finally, the system allows for seamless call transfer from one 2-1-1 center to the next. Several AICs already transfer their phone lines after hours and on holidays to another center that provides the 24-hour coverage required by the Texas plan.

National Outlook on 2-1-1 and Disaster Planning

In May 2002, Congress passed the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act. This act specifically mentions 2-1-1 centers as an education component for the public. Funds related to this act are channeled through the state, either through the Department of Health or the Homeland Security offices.

Nationally, the United Way of America and AIRS received a grant from the Lily Endowment. Funds from this grant enabled AIRS to contract with Beth Pline, director of Community Initiatives from the United Way of Roanoke Valley, to develop a disaster training manual for AIRS members. When Pline worked with the United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast in Houston's First Call for Help, she assisted responders immediately following the Oklahoma City bombing. She traveled to Washington, D.C. following the Pentagon attack on September 11th to assist responders in effectively coordinating resources. In May 2002, she spoke at the national AIRS conference in Salt Lake City. She conducted numerous trainings about disaster preparedness and the role of an I&R. In addition, she also utilized some of the grant funds to travel to Texas, Ohio, Minnesota and Virginia for individualized training for these states on disaster management plans for their 2-1-1 systems.

This training manual clearly outlines the purpose of an I&R during a crisis situation and how 2-1-1 can facilitate the process in each community. She states, "2-1-1 enables a community to pull together as one during a tragedy. After the training, more I&R programs are seeing the benefit of a disaster manual and are more aware of their role in the community at-large." She hopes that more I&R programs can use the manual to develop closer relationships with responders to strengthen community ties in the event of a tragedy.

Dan Williams, national 2-1-1 director, hopes that 2-1-1 can be a bridge to the community in a crisis situation. He states, "The Bioterrorism Preparedness Act provides a tool for communities to use 2-1-1 to its highest potential." He and AIRS Executive Director Lori Warrens assist I&R programs in providing quality service and act as a national advocate for 2-1-1.

Utilizing all of a community's resources is critical during a disaster or tragedy. I&R and 2-1-1 are but one resource a community can call upon during these situations. The program has tremendous potential for community action and can provide useful data to community planners during the planning process and as a follow-up tool to a disaster.

What if a community does not have a 2-1-1 program? Most communities have an I&R program. It is either an agency's primary role or a secondary service, one that is provided in addition to other services. The I&R program can still provide all of the services outlined previously just as effectively as a 2-1-1. The need to establish hotline numbers to field calls and accept donations is still unnecessary, as the I&R program will more than likely be willing to lend its number to aide in publicity efforts during the crisis situation. Since follow-up from a large-scale disaster can last for upwards of two years, the roles of I&R in these communities are as plentiful as they are for 2-1-1 centers. Organizations should be willing to effectively utilize existing resources instead of duplicating efforts on a large scale during a disaster. Effective preparation during the plan's review period can yield new partnerships as a result of including the I&R program.

Each community should design a plan to fit its own needs. There are many needs during a crisis and only with effective communication can the public be informed about the next step. The terrorism threats facing the United States today lends itself to meticulous planning on the part of responders and providers throughout the nation. Collaboration is the key to holding a community together during these trying times.


A Community's Best-Kept Secret

Traditionally, information and referral (I&R) is a community's best-kept secret. Caseworkers in the social service arena may know where to get services for their clients. Average citizens experience difficulty navigating the "maze" in the event of a family or personal crisis. I&Rs sprang up in communities after World War II when troops returned home from the war and needed relocation assistance. In the late 1960s, the National Conference on Social Welfare recognized I&R as a distinct service within the social service arena.

By the early 1970s, funding for I&R became available, both at the local and federal level. Moreover, I&R gained respect as a separate profession, needing specialized services and training. Agencies providing I&R often did so by distributing information leaflets or pamphlets and keeping database information on a Rolodex on someone's desk. Now, computer programs devoted specifically to I&R house community resource information.

In 1973, the Alliance for Information and Referral Systems (AIRS) developed in order to protect the interest of programs around the nation. The need for operating standards drove the accreditation program that has certified thirteen agencies through December 2002, with 46 more in varying stages of the process. In addition, certification exams exist for call specialists, database managers, and aging specialists. Aging specialists are a subset of call specialists who work exclusively with the elderly populations, generally persons sixty and older. Approximately 1,750 persons hold a certification in one of these areas.

About the author: Sandra Ray is a freelance writer who also manages a 2-1-1 call center in Texas. She has been involved in planning the Texas 2-1-1 system for the past six years.

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