Call center workers coordinate action following disaster

By Amy Forbus Editor When disaster occurs, offers for help begin immediately. To report needs and to meet them, people and teams have to connect with each other. And communication can be a challenge when everything’s happening at once. Call Center April 30 On April 28, the morning after an EF4 tornado cut a path of destruction through several Arkansas communities, the Arkansas Conference disaster response team, assisted by the Conference Center for Technology, set up a call center to keep track of the many moving parts of disaster relief. From one of the smaller meeting rooms in the Conference offices, volunteers began answering phone calls, responding to emails, attempting to verify reports of damage and logging requests for assistance. “Have we been through all the emails from this morning and last night?” asks Janice Mann, co-coordinator of disaster response for the Arkansas Conference, as she walks into the call center. She keeps track of the communication flowing there while her husband and co-coordinator, Byron, provides reports from the field and receives directions and information to pass on to others in the affected areas. On a conference call with Arkansas VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster), the call center team learns that at that particular time, more than enough organizations are providing meals in the Vilonia area. They make a note to schedule cooking and feeding crews for weeks in the future, not days. A Google spreadsheet with multiple tabs helps call center workers track drop-off locations for supplies, volunteers and their levels of training, needs, offers of help, supplies, service providers, media inquiries and housing offers for teams coming from a few hours away or from out of state. A corresponding Google Calendar shows the names of individuals or team leaders on the dates they are scheduled to arrive in one of the disaster areas. “Weekdays are looking pretty empty,” says Annie Meeks, a college student and member of Trinity UMC who was one of the first to arrive as a call center helper. While workers are going to be needed for the foreseeable future on all days of the week, it’s true that teams able to come on weekdays will likely be scheduled sooner. As they field offers of nearly everything—spiritual care, tarps, people, mobile kitchens for feeding storm victims and workers, gloves—volunteers use laptops to update information that’s instantly shared with the rest of the team. Call Center May 2“Okay, so you all are self-sufficient…. right, right,” says Becky Neighbors, administrator for the Northwest District and a call center volunteer, on the phone with a local church’s team leader. “What we’re telling people is gloves, trash bags, make sure you have some goggles, and yard tools—shovels, rakes—because right now it’s removing debris.” For later teams, the supply list may change, but in the early days following the storm, basic clean-up help is one of the most urgent needs. While the Manns are adhering to the Arkansas Conference’s existing disaster response plan, they’re also learning as they go. “This is the first call center I’ve had to set up since we started in this position,” Janice Mann said. While things have gone relatively well, she plans to put more planning into call center needs and training so she can be even more prepared in the face of future disasters. On one of many calls from Byron, she asks, “Are they going to stage at the church? Yeah, you talked to Nathan about that already.” Vilonia UMC is in the unique position of being both a disaster site and a drop-off point for needed relief supplies, so coordination with that church’s pastor, the Rev. Nathan Kilbourne, is essential. Other special situations present themselves every few hours. “There’s a Hispanic community out that way that’s kind of leery of letting people know who they are and that they’re there, so if you could ease in and see what we can do to help, that would be great,” Janice Mann tells a trained early responder calling in from the field. “Do we need someone speaking Spanish?” Upon hearing that question, volunteers begin offering names of area clergy who are bilingual. Near the end of the work week, incoming calls to the line set up for the center had slowed down. Volunteers used their own mobile phones to return calls and verify information. In calmer moments, they discuss what kind of training would be helpful for future call centers, then take a break from disaster mode and tell a quick story unrelated to the tornado. As churches call to offer work teams, some express concern that there may not be a place for them to serve. “Believe me, you’re gonna get a chance,” Janice Mann tells one caller. “This is gonna be a long-term thing.” As an organization affiliated with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Arkansas Conference Disaster Response team sees recovery through until the end. In a few weeks, public interest in this particular disaster will decline, but United Methodist involvement will not. Because several people are keeping track of evolving needs, team coordination and support is crucial. Tracking each call helps avoid duplication of effort and wasted time. At one point, Mann looks across the meeting room table and asks, “What are you doing, writing a story on the chaos in the call center?” She chuckles, then returns to the work at hand. While there may be chaos, it’s of the controlled variety. And such coordination makes it possible for as many United Methodist teams as possible to stay on the ground, working with other groups, making progress together toward recovery and healing for the communities they serve.