2-1-1 Call Centers Are Lifelines During Hurricane Sandy and Beyond

Nov 9, 2012, 11:26 AM

What do you call a phone number that helps assess your needs—even if that need is for heat and food, after a hurricane has destroyed your home? In New Jersey and throughout the nation, you call that number 2-1-1.

A growing number of cities have established 2-1-1 call centers that connect people to essential services such as employment training, help for an older parent, addiction prevention and affordable housing options. During Hurricane Sandy, the call centers also directed people to shelters, food, government resources, and, if needed, a mental health counselor to listen and comfort. In the aftermath of the storm calls to the service have increased at least 400 percent, says Laura Zink Marx, director of operations for the NJ 2-1-1 Partnership and chair of the 2-1-1US Steering committee, a volunteer role. The New Jersey 2-1-1 Partnership is a subsidiary of the United Way of New Jersey.

“Probably the most common question,” says Marx, “is, ‘when will my power be back on?’ If you have internet access you can keep looking at interactive maps that show you how much progress utility companies have made, though millions are still without power. But if you have no electricity, and no way to access information, you just feel abandoned and scared. We’re getting those calls and sharing the information as it’s updated.”

Marx says the 2-1-1 line in New Jersey is also letting people know where the food pantries are in their neighborhood and, by tracking call origins, can also provide the aggregate data to the food bank to see where the need is the greatest. Volunteers have been loaned by Americorps and many are fielding rumors perpetuated by social media, says Marx. A common one: FEMA is not giving out $300 food vouchers but it is standing up mobile kitchens. Operators tell callers how to find the closest ones.

Just before Superstorm Sandy hit, NewPublicHealth spoke with Laura Marx about the impact the 2-1-1 line is having in New Jersey. Despite her recent sleepless days and nights, Marx also updated us on the call line’s response in the wake of the storm and the subsequent Storm Athena.

NewPublicHealth: What is the 2-1-1 project in New Jersey and how did United Way get involved?

Laura Marx:  The 2-1-1 concept began about 15 years ago, even before September 11th. United Ways have always had an information referral component within their organization for probably the last 35 years. That’s an important resource for us to help connect people with services in their local community.


United Way does a needs assessment in the community every couple of years, often working with the local government or other organizations. What we’ve found is that almost always the number one reason people give for what is needed in the community is how to find the right resources, quickly. So about 12 years ago United Way and the Alliance of Information Referral Systems (AIRS), our accrediting organization, met with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to suggest that a three digit dialing code be dedicated to health and human services—because people find it really difficult to navigate the social service system. The FCC thought it was a great idea and granted the right to determine how it would happen in each state to each of the local boards of public utilities. And that's how we got in the business.

Every state has come up with its own way of administering the dialing code. In some states it was United Way administering it, in some states it was the local information referral networks, in other states it was the state themselves, but with the premise that we would all work together.

NPH: How widespread is the service now?

Laura Marx: 2-1-1 now covers about 90 percent of the nation and last year we answered 16.8 million calls.

NPH: What are the kinds of calls that the 2-1-1 system is set up to receive and to help with?

Laura Marx:  The 2-1-1 calls we get on a day-to-day basis are very much about basic needs. In New Jersey, for example 58 percent of our calls are for emergency financial assistance, and of those 58 percent, almost half of them are for utility assistance where people are so far behind that they can't catch up with their utility bills and are being threatened with shutoff. [Editor’s Note: This portion of the interview was conducted prior to SuperStorm Sandy.]

NPH: How is 2-1-1 making a difference?

Laura Marx: We’re the human service concierge service, so to speak, to try to really get people to the best resource and give them all the tools they need to make that experience the best. We’re absolutely connecting people to services, but we're also giving them information about eligibility, what documents they should bring with them, and if they have transportation issues, information on how can they get there. Then from the United Way side we're also documenting in aggregate form what the needs are, how we've been able to help them, and, if it turns out to be the case, how we've not been able to help them.

And to me, quite honestly, that's the biggest connection back to my United Way professionalism because it really allows us to look at changing trends and see when problems are starting to arise. Calls have let us know, for example, that reservists had insufficient resources, food pantries were bare and foreclosures were mounting. We shared our data with the community food bank so they could bring it to the governor's office and make a case for dollars to be released to provide more food back to the local community. So in a very broad sense we are affecting long-term change in terms of how systems are run and how funding decisions are made, I think that's what makes 2-1-1 so powerful.

Foreclosure is another example. I think many of the 2-1-1's throughout the nation have worked very closely in educating consumers who are facing foreclosure that they must meet this challenge head-on. So, for instance, in New Jersey we had a foreclosure mediation line here where someone could actually go before a judge and their creditor and really try to mediate an answer so they wouldn't lose their home. But they weren't opening the envelope that offered them the opportunity—it's so ingrained not to open it because it might be bad news. So part of our education was to say you have to open your mail, you have to look and see because sometimes there are opportunities there that will be gone if you don't do that. So sometimes it's just proactive messaging so that people really understand the kinds of services that are available in the community, especially new services or initiatives.

NPH: How has 2-1-1 impacted disaster response?

Laura Marx: We have a backup system so that 2-1-1 centers not impacted by a disaster can pick up the calls for a center that is. Our sister center is in Palm Beach on the Treasure Coast so whenever a hurricane's coming up the coast we start to take the calls so they can go home and be with their family and friends and get through the storm. We back each other up throughout the nation, but we're also gathering real-time data at the moment to really be able to give that information back to state and county officials during the disaster.

NPH: Did that backup system work during Hurricane Sandy? Was Palm Beach your backup? And what critical information did they provide?

Laura Marx: For Hurricane Sandy, NJ 2-1-1 is using the services of 2-1-1 Palm Beach, 2-1-1 Houston and 2-1-1 Vermont to help balance the increased call volume.  “Since our hurricane resources are web based at www.nj2-1-1.org, our 2-1-1 partners are able to access the same information as our call specialists onsite, so the response is transparent, with the same real time information

NPH: Down the road, how do we get to a point where some of the basic problems are solved? How does 2-1-1 become not just the solution to the questions that are being asked, but preempt the question to not always have people in a state of crisis?

Laura Marx:  That’s exactly why we have agreed to work with the state of New Jersey on some critical issues, such as the low energy assistance hotline. Of 200,000 calls, about half are people trying to get an update on their application for energy assistance to help them pay their basic energy bills. That seems like a lot to us, so one of the goals we have is how can we make that system easier and how can we give feedback to the state to make the application work better for the caller and work better for the state. Absolutely, we see ourselves as a convener in that problem solving sort of way. The bigger issues, I think, from the United Way perspective, it's more about advocacy and bringing stakeholders around the tables, to see the top needs, and to work in the local communities to solve some of those. It’s also about being more proactive in getting information out to people so they're not always in a crisis circumstance. It’s a big task.

>>Bonus Link: One key thing that has changed since the 2-1-1 program began is the incredible growth of internet resources and Marx hopes that people, when they have access to power, will also make use of the 2-1-1 New Jersey website and other 2-1-1 service websites, which can often speed up the pace of getting answers and resources. “But don’t feel as though you have to do that instead of calling,” says Marx. “We want to hear from you in the best way that suits your needs.” 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.