Volume XVII | Issue 1 | Spring 2017
Beachcombers are encouraged to report tsunami debris by calling 211.

Call 211 for resources

Service offers a critical component of a community’s infrastructure

When tsunami debris began coming ashore on Oregon’s coast, residents were encouraged to report sightings by calling 211, an information hotline that connects callers with resources of all kinds. When Bend was in the middle of a meningitis outbreak, 211 was the place to call for information. And if ever your community suffers a catastrophic event, 211 will be ready with a list of resources, from where to get sandbags to the location of the nearest shelter. 

“It’s just a no-brainer. We need 211info in our communities to connect people with needed services, especially in rural areas,” says Mike Fieldman, who has been involved with efforts to implement 211 in Oregon for the last 15 years. “It becomes a critical part of our community infrastructure, especially in times of disaster.

“In a crisis, 911 gets inundated with calls for nonessential needs and that takes them away from their role in dealing with the emergency,” Fieldman says, pointing out that 911 operators are often the first ones to support 211 in their community.

It’s not a new service; 211 was developed in the 1990s to help out with the large volume of calls expected for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. United Way played a big role in implementing the service nationwide, and today, nearly all 50 states have 211 service. 

An expanding resource

Until recently, 211info was supported by grant funds, including an award by The Ford Family Foundation. Today, it is self-sustaining, thanks in part to an expansion of “specialty lines,” or services supported by a contract with an outside agency.

“In 2013, we started to have a statewide footprint as state agencies started to recognize what we could do,” says Dan Herman, chief executive officer of 211info. “In July of 2015, 211info became a sole source contractor for Oregon’s Department of Administrative Services, which has become a very substantial part of our revenue base.”

The service’s status as a preferred contractor makes it easy for governmental agencies to contract with 211info. For example, a childcare resource contact with the Oregon Early Learning Division allows that agency to disseminate information through the easy-to-use service people are already familiar with.

The service also contains a robust data collection element, enabling it to provide valuable information on regional community needs to legislators and other stakeholders.

The 211 program in Oregon is enjoying increased support from legislators and the public, as its role in getting information to the public is better understood. In recent years, 211’s call center in Portland has been supplemented by online information at www.211info.org, texting requests for information to 211, and a phone app, 211info, which uses location data to direct people to resources in their immediate area.

Rural areas challenging

The service is still facing some roadblocks. Without a lot of funding to market the service statewide, it’s harder to get the word out about 211 to all corners of the state. 

Maintaining the database of resources, which contains information on 42,000 programs, can also be challenging. The service depends on a two-way exchange of information, and many events and programs are excluded because the information has not been shared with 211 operators.  

Herman says 211info is looking at expanding its roster of full-time community engagement coordinators, which are located across the state.

 “We recognize that having a local presence is pretty essential,” he says. “The community engagement coordinators allow us to have a local person on the ground, to connect with partners and do community and consumer trainings. 

“It’s really that local preparation that makes a big difference in our service level.” 

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