Adam Interviews 211 Lifeline Director

Adam Interviews

Deb Turner provides insight into an operation under increased demand since the pandemic

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Anyone in our area can, at any time, call 211 to receive non-emergency help.

Goodwill of the Finger Lakes funds 211 and Deb Turner runs it.

Here’s her interview with Adam Chodak.

Adam Chodak: What is 211?

Deb Turner: 211 is an easy to remember N-1-1 kind of number. So just like there’s 911 where people can call in cases of emergencies. 211 is who people can call when they’re just not sure what to do or where to turn. So 211 provides 24-7-365 information and referral to human services. This community also very blessed to have a 211 Lifeline program because we’re also the local crisis line in the area. So we help individuals who are struggling with emotional mental health crisis or having thoughts of suicide. We’re considered a blended center. We’re able to provide that information referral piece to help connect them to the right resource alongside having that empathetic approach to how we can really serve our callers.

AC: So the folks who pick up, it really seems like they’d have to have a tremendously diverse skill set…

DT: They do. They do. They go through countless hours of training and preparation. The screening process to get in is very rigorous. We need people who are very technologically savvy alongside just compassionate. So being passionate about helping people in crisis is a must for our team and they demonstrate that every day just by coming to work.

AC: Tell me what it’s been like since the pandemic struck in March…

DT: It has been… My team would probably call it non-stop. We have seen easily over a 200% increase call volume. So our center was really built and structured to support around 30,000 calls a year just for 211. Just from March on we’ve seen about 50,000 calls. So we’re seeing huge huge numbers in volume and need out there.

AC: How does that impact the center?

DT: It’s a lot of calls waiting. I think the way that COVID has impacted our community a lot of first-time users of human services are reaching out to us so what that means is that it takes a little more time to explain process, how to apply, where to go, but also at the same time just encouraging them that we’re all struggling right now and there’s no shame in needing help right now. So what that translates to in a call center is that our handle time, our talk time used to be under 5 minutes so now we’re seeing an average of 10.5 minutes to help each individual. And so what that means, in addition to that, is that our wait times are higher.

AC: It seems to me that you and your staff would have their finger on the pulse on what the community needs at a given moment so what does the need look like out there?

DT: I think right now people are just trying to figure out how to get by. Whether they have past due rent coming up or they’re concerned about their kids. How are they going to get their kids through schooling and remote learning? Different districts are also having a different approach to learning and so there’s some anxiety around that. How am I going to feed my family. Do I have to go to a food pantry or are there other options out there? So there’s been a lot of people just trying to adapt to what this new normal looks like.

AC: When the eviction moratorium is lifted will 211 play a role in addressing the increased need?

DT: We will, yes.

AC: And do you expect a large number of phone calls coming in to be about that?

DT: We do. We do. We’re honestly not anticipating this volume to not die down for quite a while. We’re not sure how long. That’s dependent on what kind of support comes in on the federal level to what’s happening with COVID, if there’s an increase in cases, a decrease in cases. It’s tough, I mean, we know the volume is going to remain high for quite a while so we’re staffing up to prepare for that.

AC: Could 211 struggle financially because of everything?

DT: Yes, with the stores being closed during COVID, it takes a hit on that revenue brought in to support my program so any kind of additional dollars we get go towards bringing on more staff to answer more calls.

AC: How do you address what I assume becomes mental fatigue when they have to handle these types of cases and the increased number of them?

DT: We’ve been giving them time off when they ask for it, if they need a break, they need a break. I think the hardest thing for my staff is being able to get to everyone as quickly as possible So when they’re seeing our queue when calls are waiting, it’s so high that it fills them with anxiety and so it’s just taking a call at a time. The only expectation is that you be as kind and empathetic, helpful with every person you interact with and that reminder is very powerful to them. We’ve also been having twice a week groups for them to get together, just kind of talk about different topics, different subjects. We have a role called a clinical care liaison so what she does is she facilitates these groups, so they pick a topic like radical acceptance, what are you doing to take care of yourself during this time. How are you coping with this call volume? What is within your control and not within your control. Our staff is really empathetic so it’s really hard for them, but they are doing a phenomenal job just staying with that one person they have on the phone and giving them the best service possible.

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