When natural disaster strikes San Diego County, residents know to dial 2-1-1 for information about shelters, clean drinking water, evacuations and more. But not all Californians have the free service available.
Legislation by Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, seeks to expand the 2-1-1 number to the 21 counties that don’t yet have it and provide a single, easy-to-remember number for essential services.
“You have different services in different parts of the state,” Hueso told Techwire in an interview. “With something so essential, there is a need to create a common language. We want a number everybody is familiar with.”
SB 1212 would authorize the Public Utilities Commission to tap into existing money in the California Teleconnect Fund to help counties set up 2-1-1, as well as support a comprehensive statewide database that could connect callers to information and referrals.
Established in 2005, 2-1-1 is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to roughly 95 percent of Californians, according to the bill analysis. In San Diego, more than 130,000 residents used the service in five days when wildfires ravaged the county in 2007. Counties have partnered with nonprofits and other local entities to set up call centers,
But many Californians who live in rural areas of the state still lack what advocates describe as a vital service in times of disaster. The startup costs have been prohibitive in places vulnerable to forest fires, floods, earthquakes or other natural disasters.
The bill also describes 2-1-1 as a service that Californians could call for other public needs. For example, callers could find information concerning child care services, housing assistance, physical and mental health resources, aging and hospice services, educational and other programs.
Some question whether such a robust program is needed because several existing 800 numbers connect Californians to a variety of social services and disaster response help. County area agencies on aging, for example, are mandated by state and federal law to provide information and assistance about aging services. Part of their outreach is an 800 number.
“This bill doesn’t recognize any of these services,” said Derrell Kelch, executive director of the California Association of Area Agencies on Aging. “It’s duplicative, and I think it will create confusion.”
Hueso said his bill is an attempt to help Californians by providing a single number for them to remember no matter where they are in the state.
“We’re trying to unify the state around a common language that makes it easy for people to obtain help and emergency services,” he said. “Imagine if we had different numbers for 9-1-1.”
Ten counties are currently developing a 2-1-1 service: Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Lassen, Mono, Plumas, Placer, Siskiyou, Sutter and Yuba. Another 11 counties do not have programs in development for 2-1-1: Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Del Norte, Inyo, Lake, Madera, Modoc, Sierra, Trinity and Tuolumne.
The Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee approved the bill by a 10-0 vote earlier this month. It is now before the Senate Appropriations Committee.