Sanders, Gillibrand, and Casey Call on FCC to Swiftly Expand Access to Essential 2-1-1 Program to Thousands of Vulnerable Americans Who Lack Consistent Cell Service

Since The Start Of The Pandemic, 2-1-1 Call Centers Have Reported 248% Increase In Call Volume Related To Food And Housing Insecurity And Public Health Information

While 9-1-1 And Other Emergency Calls Are Guaranteed Without An Active Contract With A Telecommunication Carrier, The Senators Argue That 2-1-1 Is An Additional Lifeline For Many Vulnerable Americans And Must Be Accessible To Those Who Lack A Service Provider, Or When Wifi Calling Is The Only Option

WASHINGTON, March 24 – On Monday, U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Bob Casey (D-PA) called on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to immediately expand access to essential 2-1-1 calls to thousands of vulnerable Americans who lack consistent cell service. The 2-1-1 hotline provides essential community services for millions of Americans seeking information related to supplemental food and nutrition programs, rental assistance, veteran services, substance use disorder support programs, and suicide prevention.

Since the pandemic began, call centers have received an influx of calls as more Americans experience food and housing insecurity, and search for critical public health information and vaccine access. While 9-1-1 and other emergency calls are guaranteed for individuals without an active contract with a cell phone carrier, 2-1-1 calls are inaccessible to thousands of Americans who do not have consistent cell service or who are only able to make calls using WiFi. The senators are calling on the FCC to quickly enact a similar policy to 47 CFR § 9.4 (“Obligation to transmit 911 calls”) that would require all telecommunication carriers to transmit 2-1-1 calls to a local point of access and to connect calls over WiFi. 

“Given the unprecedented pandemic emergency we currently face and the clear need for stable access to essential information and referrals provided by 2-1-1 services, we ask you take all appropriate steps to institute a similar obligation for all telecommunication carriers to transmit 2-1-1 calls to a local point of access and to connect calls over WiFi. Doing so will ensure those who lose cell phone access do not also lose access to this crucial lifeline,” said the senators. 

“It is critically important that we expand access to 211/LIFE LINE for people in need, especially as the COVID-19 crisis persists,” said Jennifer Lake, CEO of Goodwill of the Finger Lakes. “Since the pandemic, calls to 211/LIFE LINE have increased by more than 300%, that’s more than 110,000 calls during the pandemic alone. People need vaccine information, food resources, and vital behavior health support and don’t have cell phone minutes available or even access to a working phone. This dialing access will help individuals and families in crisis in our community here and across the country. It’s a critical step toward combating the health and social crises so many people suffer daily.”

“Vermont 211 (and 211s nationally) plays a crucial role, which is even more visible and important in times of crisis. Since the start of the pandemic, many Vermonters have been faced for the first time with needs that they could no longer meet on their own. For others, the usual resources were no longer available or could not meet the demand that suddenly became too high. Vermont 211 helps everyone find accessible and available resources for everyday needs and during all phases of a disaster,” said MaryEllen Mendl, Executive Director, United Ways of Vermont/Vermont 2-1-1/Help Me Grow VT. 

“It is our shared responsibility to make sure that the basic needs of all citizens are met,” said Julie DeSeyn, Chief Program and Policy Officer, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. “By ensuring access to 211, you’re ensuring access to resources for housing, food, employment, childcare, utilities, and more. As we move toward recovery from the pandemic, this is a vital place to start. We are deeply thankful to Senators Gillibrand, Sanders, and Casey for supporting this work.”

2-1-1 is a free and confidential referral hotline that can be accessed by phone or computer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year round. A toll-free call to 2-1-1 connects individuals to a community resource specialist in their local area who can put them in touch with local organizations that provide critical services that can improve — and save — lives. In 2020 alone, New York State 2-1-1 call centers received 15,126 calls for crisis intervention services, with rates spiking during the early months of the pandemic. Additionally, in many rural areas across New York, Vermont, and Pennsylvania broadband services are available where cell phone service is not, leaving WiFi as the only option to call emergency information and referral service lines such as 2-1-1.

Read the letter here.