GSA’s National Contact Center Aids Tsunami Victims
GSAs National Contact Center Aids Tsunami Victims
The General Services Administrations (GSA) National Contact Center took calls on behalf of the State Departments Office of Overseas Citizen Services and responding to the concerns of U.S. citizens. This telephone response service was provided by GSA under the Presidential E-gov initiative known as USA Services.
While USA Services normally operates the hotline Monday through Friday, 8 am 8 pm EST, it quickly opened telephone lines 24/7 to an American public frantically trying to get information on friends and relatives traveling or staying in the area hit by the disaster. Now that the crisis has abated, the lines are open 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. EST.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the toll-free telephone number (1-888-407-4747) and it was highlighted on the State Department homepage. A second telephone number is available to callers outside the U.S. and Canada: 202-501-4444. As a result, the hotline was flooded with anxious callers. A service that ordinarily handles about 300 calls per day was averaging over 2,000 calls per day. A total of more than 22,000 calls were received during the 10-day period from 12/26/04 to 1/04/05.
The National Contact Center functions much as a mini-consular office would. Agents answer questions from the calling public providing facts the State Department regularly updates, and gathering information as well. Agents enter the information they receive about individuals into a databasenames, supposed locations, hotels, identifying characteristics, and contact information for interested parties. The center transmits this database to the State Department regularly, and State officials return calls to friends and relatives as soon as they have anything to report.
There have also been instances of individuals believed to be missing contacting the National Contact Center to pass along information on their own status. Some contacted the hotline number, but those who could not make telephone contact found other ways to get through. One young woman, caught on an island when the tsunami hit, and unable to establish telephone contact early on, emailed the FirstGov.gov Web site asking that information on her status and on that of her fellow travelers be provided to the State Department. The National Contact Center, which responds to FirstGov.gov email, duly passed on the information, as it did for several who found this the most efficient way to contact the authorities.