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October 1st, 2006, 08:15 PM
N.J. starts new 2-1-1 emergency phone line

10/1/2006, 12:00 a.m. ET
By WAYNE PARRY
The Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) ómagine a hurricane was headed straight for Long Beach Island, or a terrorist attack in north Jersey had forced the closure of highways and led to a quarantine zone.

Where would you call for up-to-date, accurate information on what to do and where to go in your particular neighborhood?

The next time a crisis occurs in the Garden State, either natural or man-made, residents can get non-emergency help by dialing 2-1-1 on their telephones. The state has adapted the existing 2-1-1 phone hot line, which started last year to connect callers with human services information, to handle calls from people wondering what to do in an emergency, yet not requiring immediate rescue help.

"We are taking an important step toward improving the flow of information during times of emergency or heightened alert," said Gov. Jon Corzine. "By expanding the state's existing 2-1-1 telephone system, New Jersey's residents will have an easy-to-remember number to call for information on how to proceed in the face of everything from terrorism threats to natural disasters."

The plan is designed to ease the burden on 9-1-1 operators and local police dispatchers, who will already be swamped with calls directly related to the emergency. The 2-1-1 line is geared toward getting out information such as evacuation routes as a strong storm approaches the area, or advice on where to find food and shelter once the storm, or terror attack, has passed and caused damage.

The system still has some bugs to be worked out, however. During a chemical emergency Tuesday afternoon in Elizabeth, in which more than 50 people were sickened by a noxious cloud and a wide area was cordoned off, a reporter who called the 2-1-1 hot line was told there was no information available on the situation there.

"We wouldn't have any information on that," an operator told the reporter. "We're an information line for social services. You might want to call to the Elizabeth Health Department."

After being notified of the response given by the 2-1-1 operator, the state homeland security department fixed the problem by giving operators information on the Elizabeth situation, a spokesman said.

"That is exactly the type of situation we had in mind for 2-1-1," said Richard Canas, New Jersey's homeland security director. "Traffic was tied up in knots, and if people called 2-1-1, they could have found out what was going on and what they should do. We'll get it worked out."

Despite the initial glitch, Canas said 2-1-1 is much easier for people to remember than the plethora of 1-800 help numbers that exist in the Garden State; there are more than 1,200 of them.

Here's how the revamped hotline works: A caller to 2-1-1 is connected with an operator who will read the latest official information issued by the state homeland security department. If the caller has a particular need, such as temporary housing during a flood, or an evacuation route out of a particular neighborhood, the operator will direct the caller to the proper government or private agency.

People needing immediate emergency help should still call 9-1-1.

A public-private partnership headed by New Jersey's United Way agencies, 2-1-1 previously worked with the state's Department of Human Services and other agencies to provide referrals to people who need things like food banks, shelters, housing, crisis lines, counseling, health care programs and job training. Those services will continue unchanged on 2-1-1.

Atlanta offered the first 2-1-1 line in 1997. Since then, at least 32 other states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico have started 2-1-1 service. Most use it for similar purposes, although not all include emergency information on the line.

There has been a nationwide push for several years to extend 2-1-1 to every state, but the proposal has bogged down in Congress over funding.

When Hurricane Katrina knocked out New Orleans' 2-1-1 service last year, a neighboring county handled hundreds of calls from displaced residents looking for help. Karen Hyatt, a United Way disaster preparedness manager who worked in Louisiana, said calls to the line surged after the storm.

"People were calling to report people still on roofs, people were calling looking for help with missing relatives," she said. "And in Texas after Katrina hit, the authorities posted road signs all along the evacuation route listing 2-1-1 as the number to call for current and accurate shelter information."

Hyatt praised New Jersey for adding emergency information to its hot line.

"It's very forward-thinking to be looking at ways to enhance emergency preparedness," she said. "New Jersey is a state where a lot of other states could evacuate people to. If something happens in New York or Philadelphia, a lot of people could wind up in New Jersey, and this would be a good way to get information out to them."

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On the Net:

New Jersey's 2-1-1 hot line: http://www.nj211.org/