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211 service got a workout during November windstorm

“Just listen and be there,” said Collin Keating, information resource referral specialist for Spokane’s 211 call center at Frontier Behavioral Health. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
“Just listen and be there,” said Collin Keating, information resource referral specialist for Spokane’s 211 call center at Frontier Behavioral Health. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Just about everyone knows to dial 911 in the event of an emergency.

But there’s another three-digit number that provides callers with critical information about health and human services, as well as resources during and after a disaster.

That number – 211 – is a centralized, regional number for nonemergency community assistance, providing callers with information about food, clothing, shelter and other social services. It’s open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Eastern Washington 211 call center is based at Frontier Behavioral Health. The Spokane center averages about 1,500 calls per month during normal operations, said Staci Cornwell, director of crisis response services at the nonprofit. But during the recent windstorm that took down power lines across the region and caused extensive damage, the center added more volunteers and extended hours.

The center received 878 storm-related calls between Nov. 18 and Nov. 25, with nearly 250 calls on the first day rolled over to an adjacent regional center with access to Spokane’s database, Cornwell said.

The calls peaked at more than 400 on Nov. 23, several days after the storm, she said.

“We did have to expand our hours and bring in additional staff to help out,” she said. “It’s fortunate we had the additional staffing and could manage the call volume and extend hours for people who needed that as well.”

Seven 211 centers across the state are linked under the umbrella of Washington Information Network 211.

State lawmakers in 2003 designated WIN 211 as the lead organization for support of the 211 network, and the organization maintains a statewide database of community resources as well as an online database.

During November’s windstorm, Spokane’s 211 center fielded calls about power outages, information on warming shelters, where to find firewood and fuel for generators, and requests for welfare checks on vulnerable adults, Cornwell said.

She added that the 211 call center worked closely with the Spokane County Department of Emergency Management and other organizations.

Jessie Wuerst, spokeswoman for Spokane-based Avista Corp., said Avista customers are referred to 211 frequently when they need access to community services.

“The 211 call center is a real valuable resource for the community,” she said.

“During the windstorm people would call and say things like the food in their refrigerator was (bad) and they didn’t know where to turn,” Wuerst said. “When it’s clear people need information we refer them to 211.”

Many of the calls answered at the center during normal operations are related to rental assistance, low-cost housing and questions about utilities assistance.

“Anything related to housing is consistently our top need,” Cornwell said.

Operators don’t request callers’ identification, but they do ask for location by ZIP code, although it’s not required information.

Callers’ demographics can point to areas of the community that are hit hardest during a disaster, which the center can communicate to outside agencies.

“If we’re seeing a spike in call volume from certain areas, we can provide that information to a particular stakeholder like the Spokane County Department of Emergency Management, so they can address that need for a particular group in a specific ZIP code,” Cornwell said.

Calls come from anyone, she said.

“We get quite a few professionals who call on behalf of the people they’re working with,” she said. “Individuals will call themselves or families will call in.”

Although the 211 call center is not deemed a crisis center, volunteers also answer calls from people needing mental health resources.

Volunteers receive training on managing such callers, Cornwell said.

Rob Crow, spokesman for Spokane’s Community, Housing and Human Services Department, said the city of Spokane also depends on the 211 call center to direct people to community resources.

“When calls come in to our front desk, with people asking how do I get ahold of such and such, whether it’s rental assistance or medical support services, we advise them to call 211,” Crow said.

The Spokane 211 center is funded in part by Spokane County United Way organizations as well as contracts with private business and community partners.

One of the goals of the 211 call centers is to lighten the load for the 911 system so it can be available for true emergencies, Cornwell said.

“We want to move calls away from 911 so they can respond to the calls that really need to be responded to, instead of (911 operators) trying to manage these other nonemergency calls,” she said.

Spokane’s 211 call center volunteer information and referral specialists can provide callers with applicable resources in Spokane, Ferry, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties.


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