The 2-1-1 Santa Barbara County information and referral phone system experienced a 300% increase in call volume in the final two weeks of March, while handling more than a month’s worth of calls in the first five days of April.
The free multilingual, round the clock helpline helps connect people to health and human services, as well as post-disaster relief and public instruction. Operated by the Community Action Commission, several new call specialists have been added in recent weeks as the 200 or so call specialists are now working remotely to serve the public.
The program works directly with the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management, Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and other local organizations and agencies to gather, update and house resources and contact information that is then used by call center specialists in their response to calls and texts from the public.
The helpline supports some 2,000 programs and services in the county, including the county’s Senior Food and Meal distribution program, working in partnership with the Community Action Commission, Foodbank and Care4PAws for individuals 60 and above and those 55 and older with disabilities.
Elisa Pardo, program manager with the helpline, has worked with the CAC since 2007. She has been with the 2-1-1 program since the CAC picked it up in 2014.
“The first thing that popped into my head and why I wanted to be part of 2-1-1 was because it’s such a useful tool,” she said, adding that it took her back to her childhood when she served as a translator for her mother. “It reminded me how amazing it would have been for me, as a child, to just even tell my mom, ‘Hey, call 2-1-1 because I don’t want to be the one always navigating or translating things.’
“(The helpline) is just that, it’s an easy to remember phone number of three digits where you call and a human answers. It’s something that I feel our community needs and it’s something that is super accessible and centralized for everyone.”
The 2-1-1 helpline now serves the county’s main COVID-19 information line. It’s partnership with the county emerged in the wake of the Thomas Fire and Montecito Debris flow, though current call volume far exceeds what was previously experienced.
When the Thomas Fire broke out in December 2017, the call center took over 4,000 calls in just a few days. In January 2018, within three or four days the call center took over 7,000 calls.
In the final two weeks of March, 2-1-1 increased its call volume by 300%, handling 1,224 calls during that period. In just the first few days of April, the call center handled close to 500 calls — which exceeds one month’s call volume, officials said.
“Those were targeted areas within our community, but this is everybody,” Ms. Pardo said. “Everybody is facing this at this point, and it’s a longer period. In one way or another, it’s affecting us all.”
With the influx in call volume, callers should expect a slight delay in service, but Ms. Pardo said they are working as quickly as possible to get back to everyone in need.
“Our call volume has definitely increased, therefore we have racked up staffing rapidly to get everybody on board to make sure that we’re answering our calls as fast as possible, but we do understand that it is a very different situation that we’re facing at this time,” she said. “It’s not a particular area that’s being impacted in our community or in our county, this is a pandemic. Everybody is going through this at this time, so we’re just trying to keep up and trying to be accessible to everybody.”
While those who are experiencing an emergency situation are advised to call 9-1-1, those who need reassurance or help navigating during these unprecedented times should be aware that help is out there — even those who may not typically utilize its services.
“There are individuals that would possibly not normally seek a 2-1-1 call, and at this point we feel like there are a lot of people learning about 2-1-1 because of this situation. I would like to remind everybody that we are year round and we are available to provide information and referrals on all of our local resources,” Ms. Pardo siad. “It doesn’t just end after this event. We were here before, we will be here during the event and we will sustain after to continue to support our community.”
Residents looking for COVID-19 information or resources can dial 2-1-1 with inquiries (if calling from an 805 area code) or call 800-400-1572 (for those calling from a different area code). Text service is also available and can be accessed by texting your zip code to 898-211 to connect with a live call specialist. More information can be found online at www.211sbco.org.