BURLINGTON, Vt. – Like a bus with giant mushrooms growing out of its top, a Mobile Command Operations Vehicle (MCOV) sat outside the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Joint Field Office, its roof covered with satellite dishes.
Inside, a dozen volunteers sat at desks taking calls from Vermonters all over the state who were seeking help in the aftermath of the massive flooding that occurred earlier in the week from Tropical Storm Irene
“Is he stranded in the house?” one volunteer asked. “Here’s a number you can call for emergency shelter,” another said. “Is it just your basement flooded?” asked a third volunteer, raising her voice to be heard above the constantly ringing phones.
Welcome to Vermont’s new 211 call center, courtesy of FEMA.
“After the first day of flooding, everybody was out there on the airwaves instructing people to call 211,” said Mary Ellen Mendl, Director of United Way of Vermont. “But we only had six lines and seven staff people who could answer them and at times the spike in calls reached 450 in one hour.”
Swamped by the volume, many people had to leave messages or could not get through at all. “On Monday alone, we returned 173 calls for the people who were able to leave a message,” Mendl said.
First launched in 2005 in Vermont by the United Way to provide referrals for basic needs such as food, housing and other resources in times of crisis, 211 has now become synonymous with immediate help after a disaster, but was being overwhelmed by callers dealing with the floods.
With FEMA already on the ground, state emergency management officials asked if there was a solution at hand. Joe Malloe, FEMA’s Communication Unit Leader for FEMA Incident Management Assistance Team, obliged.
By reconfiguring the MCOV’s communication system so that Vermont’s 211 phone lines could be routed through the vehicle’s satellite links, Malloe was able to increase the phone line capability to 17.
“We are here to support the state in its recovery efforts, and our people and resources are theirs now,” said FEMA’s Federal Coordinating Officer, Craig Gilbert. “The fact that our technical people could devise a solution so quickly really speaks to their skill and dedication.”
Vermonters who wish to volunteer to staff 211 lines may call the governor’s office at (802) 828-3333.
The 211 call service is not the same as FEMA’s number for registration for federal assistance. Those who have suffered damages and losses in Chittenden, Rutland, Washington and Windsor counties can register for disaster assistance by calling 800-621-3362 (FEMA). For TTY call 800-462-7585. If you have a speech disability or hearing loss and use a TTY, call 800-462-7585 directly; if you use 711 or Video Relay Service (VRS), call 800-621-3362.Multilingual assistance is available.
Registration is also available at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or at FEMA’s mobile website, m.fema.gov. Registering online reduces the number of forms you have to fill out, shortens the time it takes to apply for aid and allows you to check the progress of your application online.
FEMA’s mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.