Salinas, CA –
At the Monterey County 911 Emergency Communications Center, operators get plenty of legitimate calls, but they also field a lot of calls that don't belong on the 911 lines. "I won't give you a percentage, but I can tell you that most of the, I don't know if you'd even say most, but many of the 911 calls, the calls that come in on the 911 emergency lines, are not real emergencies," said Operations Supervisor John Mount. He says calls from people looking for general information really increase during natural disasters like last summer's Basin Complex Fire. "Where do we go? Where's the shelter? Are we evacuating? Are we not evacuating?" said Mount, "in the meantime the heart attacks and the medical emergencies, the fights, all of the things that are normally happening are still happening, so we become overwhelmed." Starting this week, the 911 Center will get some relief and the people making those calls now have a way to get the information they seek.
On Wednesday, the United Way of Monterey County unveiled the new 211 Information and Referral Line. Director of Community Impact and Planning, Katy Castagna, has been working on the project for the last two years. She says 211 connects callers with local health and human services. "Such as senior services, you have a grandparent who broke a hip and all the sudden can't cook for themselves, how can you help them stay in their home safely. You've moved to town and you need to find some after school activities for your child," said Castagna.
The majority of the country, about 77%, has access to a 211 service. It's proven to be a valuable resource during disasters like after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the San Diego Wildfires. "211 in all those cases has been used as a really critical information clearing house for people as they respond to those disasters," said Castagna. Now in Monterey County, people will be able to call for instant information about shelters, evacuations and the like.
The local 211 calls are fielded at a call center in Southern California. The line is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Interpreters are on standby to translate the call into 170 different languages, otherwise operators are immediately available in Spanish and English.
On the first day, 211 fielded more than 60 calls from Monterey County. And while there's no reason to believe any of those people would have otherwise called 911, John Mount welcomes the new service. "It's been proven, you know in other counties, that it really does help the emergency center to focus on their primary mission," he said. With the addition of Monterey County, California is now 86% covered by the 211 system. Santa Cruz County doesn't have the service yet, but planning is underway.
Although the United Way will manage the 211 system, it took the work of several community organizations to make it happen, including First 5 Monterey County, Monterey Salinas Transit, the Community Foundation for Monterey County, Driscoll's Berries, the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, the Monterey County Department of Social and Employment Services, Monterey County Behavioral Health and TMC Communications.