Rep. Anna Eshoo pushes bill to support emergency call services


By Bay City News Service

As fire season intensifies and Bay Area residents continue to brace for the next major earthquake, an important emergency resource may be in jeopardy unless a bill that would provide federal funding is passed, a spokeswoman for United Way of the Bay Area said Wednesday.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, and currently has 243 sponsors in the House and 61 in the Senate, Rep. Eshoo said.

Officially launched in the Bay Area two years ago, 211 is a toll-free telephone number now run by United Way offices across the country that connects callers with local community services such as counseling, food, shelter, employment assistance and more.

In the case of an emergency or natural disaster, call centers provide information about evacuation sites, road closures, shelters, medical assistance, pet care and more.

On Wednesday, Rep. Eshoo and the United Ways of California met with community leaders and others in Sunnyvale to urge Congress to approve Eshoo's bill, which would reserve federal funding to sustain and expand the call service.

"I've worked hard to make sure the bill has the votes it needs to pass," Rep. Eshoo said in a prepared statement. "Now I'm working closely with Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Waxman of the House Energy and Commerce [Committee to bring up the bill for a vote this year, preferably prior to our August recess."

In California, the service is currently available in 26 of 58 counties. The service will soon be available to residents of all nine Bay Area counties as United Way is adding a call center in Santa Cruz County, and another will open in San Mateo County next fall.

Still, Maria Stokes, a spokeswoman for United Way of the Bay Area, said that without federal funding promised by the proposed bill, United Way might not be able to sustain current call centers or add more centers throughout the state.

The potential setback comes at a particularly vulnerable time for the public, Ms. Stokes said, adding that the service has seen a 40 percent increase in overall call volume in the past year.

"We're anticipating call volume is going to continue going up," she said.

During Southern California's firestorms of 2007, call volume in San Diego increased from 800 to 40,000 calls per day, Ms. Stokes said.

"211 is serving as a life line for struggling families during these tough times," said Anne Wilson, CEO of United Way of the Bay Area in a prepared statement. "All people, everywhere, need to be able to dial 211 -- 24 hours per day, seven days per week -- to get the help they need in the event of a personal crisis or a disaster."

Ms. Wilson added that if the bill doesn't pass this year, expanding the call centers will be a "significant challenge."

Currently, the 211 call centers are sponsored by some municipal and county funding, but they are mostly funded by donors and foundation grants, Ms. Stokes said. She said they do not currently receive any federal funding.

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