Within hours of the November 30th earthquake, the staff at United Way’s 2-1-1 were activated as part of the Anchorage Emergency Operations Center, subject to the city’s Incident Command structure. So they did what they always do. With a conversational cadence and professional accuracy, they provided information and referrals to callers seeking help.
The only differences? They took calls for almost 36 hours straight before the team got the order to stand down late Saturday night and pick it up again at 5 a.m. Sunday. Some staffers didn’t have time to check on their homes before reporting for duty.
I’m United Way’s chief operating officer and overall supervisor for 2-1-1, but in these hours I served as liaison between our team and the emergency operations team. We wanted to be sure that all of our information was credible. Amid so much uncertainty, we needed to be as good as we could be at our jobs.
The team’s training and learning suited the urgent work. Whether in a disaster or on a normal day, the cadence is the same. That comforted some callers, who were able to connect with a human being who listened carefully to them, calmly asked questions, provided information and then made sure the caller understood. We wanted to make sure that this was like every day for them.
Friday the 30th wasn’t every day for any of us in the quake’s reach, but that every-day quality in the voices on the line was needed balm for all of us jolted by aftershocks and wondering just how bad it was. Our crew was careful to provide only information that had been confirmed and provided to them. If they didn’t know the answers, they said so, but took names and numbers and returned calls when they were sure of answers to questions ranging from road closures to shelter for the night.
A cardinal rule for the crew during any emergency operation is not to pass on any rumors or misinformation – a 2-1-1 version of “first do no harm.” That’s an every-day standard for 2-1-1, but of heightened importance when anxiety runs high and rumors spread at cyber speed. Steady voices that passed on only what they knew to be true helped the community keep a firm grip on reality even when it was shaking.
Saturday the 1st and the next few days had their own information challenges. You could track the progression of the disaster by the nature of the calls. Can I get home, or can I get to my kid’s school, were the questions of the moment early Friday. Through the weekend the questions changed: Where can I go if my apartment building is unsafe? Is there anyone to check out a suspected gas leak? What day care is available for my kids if I go back to work on Monday? As we got the answers, we passed them on.
We did what we do every day at 2-1-1 and United Way – we just did it around the clock.