By Brian Goslow
With Hurricane Irene threatening the East Coast in late August, Paul Mina, executive director of Massachusetts 2-1-1, the state’s one-stop center for emergency and every-day service information, was meeting with MEMA (Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency) in advance of the storm reaching New England.
“We ramp up our call center and get ready,” Mina said. “We’re also the place where the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and MEMA emergency centers are located.” (Disaster Planning Tips)
Participants from over 80 state agencies and service organizations were not only discussing possible scenarios in which immediate action to save lives would be necessary, but making sure 2-1-1 was ready to handle the thousands of expected calls from people reporting power outages and flood damage and requesting emergency services.
Mass. 2-1-1 played an important role last June when tornadoes devastated parts of Hampden County and southern Worcester County. “We almost instantly had people calling for assistance before FEMA got here,” said Mina, who noted 2-1-1 processed thousands of calls associated with the natural disaster. “We took applications through 2-1-1, learning where the damage was so we could immediately ascertain where services were needed.”
The 2-1-1 service is staffed by call takers trained to determine what a person is looking for and to either supply the information needed or, if necessary, find it.
“We’re usually able to give callers an idea of what they qualify for in terms of benefits,” Mina said. “If we don’t have the information they’re looking for, we’ll get it for them and call them back.” The service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Part of a network tying 1.5 million non-profit organizations together nationwide, 2-1-1 was created to assist residents, governments and businesses seeking local services and assistance in a wide variety of areas. In Massachusetts, 2-1-1 is a collaboration of United Way; the Massachusetts Association of Information and Referral Specialists (MAIRS); the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Service and departments of Public Health and Early Education and Care; and health and human service organizations.
Mina, who is also the executive director, president and chief program officer of United Way of Tri-County, said Mass. 2-1-1 receives over 90,000 calls a year. “Most are about how to pay healthcare or utility bills — perhaps the caller is about to have the power shut off — housing or mortgage assistance issues — the caller is about to be evicted or lose his home — and homelessness or the threat of homelessness,” he said.
Information on senior care, affordable housing, rent assistance, financial and legal assistance, local food banks, health and mental health resources, substance abuse programs, domestic violence, suicide prevention and crisis intervention and veterans and disability services are readily available through Mass. 2-1-1.
“The reason we have 2-1-1 is it’s easy to recognize and remember the number and that you can call it 24/7,” Mina said. He adds, however, that anyone with a life-threatening emergency should still call the local police, fire or EMS at 9-1-1.
For more information: www.mass211.org or call 2-1-1.