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211 system to serve as non-emergency community information source


WATERTOWN — The United Way of Northern New York is closer to setting up a 211 non-emergency phone system to help north country residents and visitors obtain quick, up-to-date information on community services.

Alleviating the hassle of being transferred to several agencies or running into dead ends will guide people to needed services quickly, according to United Way Chief Executive Officer Robert D. Gorman.

“Our service people want to provide service promptly and efficiently,” he said. “Our nonprofits also get phone calls from people looking for services.”

He hopes to have the system in place by year’s end.

In 2007, the United Way held community forums to discuss bringing a 211 system online, but its cost deterred involved agencies from moving forward. Mr. Gorman brought the initiative back earlier this year.

At the Lewis County Department of Social Services, calls frequently come in from clients or community members looking for unrelated services to assist them with various needs. Eliminating the times people are put on hold or transferred to multiple providers before being connected to the right service will give them confidence in the local systems, Lewis County DSS Commissioner Stacy L. Alvord said.

“It’s really fabulous for the north country,” Mrs. Alvord said. “Several times a day we get requests here. It’s not just DSS; it’s the health and human service community as a whole. We get calls not specific to DSS, and we can’t keep up with it all.”

Operation of a 211 system is simple: someone calls 211 looking for information on a specific service and is connected to a call center, which has access to databases of services. The call center representative then feeds information to the caller.

Mrs. Alvord favors a 211 system, and said even social services staff members would use the system for education and as a client referral resource.

“We can’t be scrambling,” she said.

The systems work, she said, citing a similar service she used in the Syracuse during her social work days. Mrs. Alvord said she had called the line “all of the time.” Linking people up with appropriate services is the uniform goal human service agencies have, she said.

Mr. Gorman said he expects a state grant to be approved next month to cover startup costs for a 211 system in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. Those three counties are among just 10 in the state that are not linked to a 211 system. Herkimer, Oneida, Oswego, Madison, Otsego, Delaware and Onondaga counties are a part of a center strip in the state without a 211 system.

Once up and running, the local 211 system may be interconnected with any 211 service line throughout the U.S., as Mr. Gorman said 211 is the nationally recognized number for a free and confidential information and resource connection line for people looking to access assistance in obtaining food, housing, employment, health care and counseling, among other services.

The 211 systems are backed nationally by the United Way.

Mr. Gorman said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was being asked by the state United Way to expand access to the 211 system to include the last 10 counties. State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, advocated for the expansion, Mr. Gorman said.

The establishment of a formal information and referral source does not necessarily mean those calls will stop being made through the 911 emergency system. Jefferson County Emergency Management Director Joseph D. Plummer said while those cases do exist, they are not frequent and may be made by people who are homeless with no money to pay for a cellphone or spare change to make a call from a pay phone.

“Would it help some call breakdown? Possibly, but I don’t think it’s a huge number,” he said. “(211) is putting information out there as a public service to the community. I see 211 as a very good idea; I think it’s a great community service out there, especially with our transient population with Fort Drum.”

As the system is implemented, Mr. Gorman said, discussions will take place on how to maintain it with financial support in the coming years.

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