Published May 7, 2020, by Sue Brogan
Second of a three-part series.
When Alaska 2-1-1 answered the call to be the lead information and referral service for both the State of Alaska and Municipality of Anchorage for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, my first move was to ask our core team of four resource specialists what they thought they could do. Who is up for what?
They all answered on these lines: “I can work as much as I’m needed no matter the hours or the days. Whatever you need, we will do it. We can make it work.”
Their spirit set the standard for the fortified Alaska 2-1-1 that took 13,516 calls in March and April – four times the 3,477 in March and April of 2019. Their dedication gave me a sense of calm and latitude in early March as we ramped up our phone service from eight and a half hours a day, five days a week to 13 hours a day, seven days a week along with our standard 24/7 online.
Other United Way staffers stepped into the 2-1-1 realm to join us in the all-hands-on-deck response to cover a 91-hour week. The overall rise to the occasion was no surprise, and it told us that the staff problem we’d have would be a blessing: Rather than urge people to step forward, we’d have to make sure they stepped back to take a breather from the intensity of a call rate running double to triple the usual flow.
When we put the expanded crew together, we had to make sure our 2-1-1 call specialists understood which calls to refer to the medical volunteers and DHSS staffers who had joined us at the Anchorage Emergency Response Center. The medical calls were clear and went swiftly to medical professionals. For calls about mandate rules, we gave basic information, such as links to websites, but often let our new office mates provide detailed answers.
Transfers side-by-side in the office were one thing. As of March 9, two medical volunteers joined the regular 2-1-1 crew while DHSS staffers worked out of another office. Even with social distancing, a crowded office allowed close coordination – a wave to a new colleague could signal a call coming her way.
Remote transfers were another matter. As of April 6, we went to working remotely, and one of the big hurdles was making sure we could make, take and transfer calls from the phone app. Working with our phone service provider, we found we could network seamlessly not only with the 2-1-1 system and each other, but with our Language Line Solutions translators. That link allowed us to maintain our service in almost any language, and in much the same way you would do with a face-to-face translated conversation.
Email traffic has increased just as call volume has and they range just as calls do, from detailed information to a simple “I need help” with anything from housing to food to COVID counseling. We learned to refine our directing of email traffic so that the caller gets a call back from the 2-1-1 specialist or volunteer best able to help.
We have also made emails key to keeping up with our voicemails. When calls stack up, as they often have during “prime time,” 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., callers on hold for four minutes have the option of leaving a voicemail. Whoever logs a voicemail sends an email message with name and number to a shift lead, then an order goes out to call that person back. That way we do not leave anyone behind. We’re encouraged with what we often hear when we call back: “Wow, that was fast. I did not expect you to get back to me that fast.” Those emails have helped us make sure no callers languish too long in voicemail limbo.
Data has become even more important in the pandemic, and there our well-honed practice of logging calls and needs has become a public-health asset. Not only have we been tracking referrals in our database so we can measure the community’s needs, we have been working to meet the state’s need to gather as much information as we can about COVID-19 calls. That serves public health in that the state can better “see” the pandemic. That serves the individual caller in that we can get them the right referrals.
Let us return for a moment to what we mentioned above, the need to make sure our call specialists and volunteers take care of themselves. We wanted to avoid burnout, especially in the first days when we were still trying to supercharge the operation. It is easy to drive yourself too hard – you don’t want to let either your callers or your colleagues down. But you need to take care of yourself for those very reasons, as well as for your own wellbeing.
There’s a standard we work by, and it hasn’t changed in the long hours of the pandemic: Whether it’s the first call or the last call of a shift, the caller deserves the best than you can give them, including the care to listen and empathize. When you do, it is often the case that a stressed caller who begins in anger and frustration ends the call with lower blood pressure and a better outlook. You cannot do that for someone when you are fried.
There is another aspect of giving your best that we have maintained – each call takes as much time as it needs to get the caller the right referrals and the right information. A 20-minute struggle through a caller’s confusion and frustration is a long haul when you have got 40-plus calls coming in during a peak hour. We give the 20 – and make it up with that caller who just needs to know the address of Lutheran Social Services.
We have gotten a better handle on scheduling as call rates have become clear. We have run staggered shifts with our maximum work force on duty during those prime-time hours. But the pandemic week still runs a lot longer than the standard 37.5 hours, and that puts our promise of “whatever you need” to the test.
Along with our medical colleagues, DHSS staffers, and relationships built with hundreds of partners over 13 years as Alaska’s helpline, we are on the line and keeping the promise.