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 Phillip Rollfing  

211 Analysis

Researcher eyes use of 211 phone
number for non-emergency help



Most people know to dial 911 for emergencies and 411 for directory assistance, but dialing 211 for non-emergency help is news to many. A Texas A&M University health and community planning professor is studying how people use 211 resources to discover ways to make these resources even more useful to their communities.

“211 numbers are administered by local agencies like United Way and provide a central information and referral network for any non-emergency need that arises in their communities,” says Sherry Bame, a professor of urban planning affiliated with the College of Architecture’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center. “Trained staff members answer 211 calls for assistance, then log the calls into a database that can be analyzed to evaluate the nature and level of a community's unmet needs.”

Since 2001, Bame has been working with the Brazos Valley regional 211 provider.

“The first database, covering the year 2001, logged 1,800 calls, but in 2004, local 211 operators answered 10,000 calls in the Brazos Valley's seven county area, a region larger than the entire state of Connecticut,” she says. She compares those figures to more than 100,000 such 211 calls fielded each year for the Houston area.

Texas’ 211 network is unique in that all 25 of its 211 regions are connected with network hardware and mutually accessible databases.

“It all comes together during a disaster,” Bame says. “For example, during the current crises caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as 211 centers became non-operational in coastal areas, their calls could be automatically rolled over to 211 operators in any part of the state. In fact, my students and I are currently pursuing funding to analyze the data collected on the hurricane evacuees to determine Texas communities' unmet needs during disasters.”

Bame's analysis can eventually help plan to meet healthcare and other community needs that currently are not being taken care of by area providers.

“There are two thrusts to such planning opportunities,” Bame says. “Disaster planning to date has centered on mitigation and management but very little on determining what needs were not met during the crisis. So, planners don't really know access barriers or who is at risk for having unmet needs beyond food, shelter, and emergency care.

“Our analysis right now is further complicated by the fact that the way calls have been entered is not uniform. We need information about the time of each call and about each caller's location, age, income, program eligibility, race and gender. If such information is properly logged, then we can use keywords to search the database for what we want to know. Right now, the data from Katrina and Rita is still sitting on the paper coding forms filled out by the volunteers who were called in to help with the crisis; it will probably be into this summer before we have it all logged into the computer and ready to analyze.”

When she finally gets into the data, Bame expects to be able to draw some conclusions about how to better prepare for disasters by learning what needs were not met during the recent hurricane crises, then using that information to plan how to close those service gaps.

“I believe we could use data from 211 calls as a real-time monitor of needs during disasters, evacuations and recoveries,” Bame says.



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