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Many may soon call 2-1-1

A new phone service program, similar to 9-1-1, would allow residents to connect with more than 30,000 nonprofit organizations government agencies by dialing 2-1-1.

If approved by the Public Service Commission, the new system would begin this summer in some areas of the state, including St. Francois County. Calls to 2-1-1 would be free.

The United Way of Greater St. Louis and the Missouri Foundation for Health announced on Thursday that they would provide a total of $8.5 million to fund the statewide service over the next five years. The Missouri Foundation for Health has agreed to provide $4.75 million for start-up and operational costs, and the United Way has committed $3.75 million for operational costs.

The United Way of St. Francois County is working closely with United Way to ensure St. Francois County will have access and quality service once 2-1-1 is implemented in this area, said Marisa Zaricor, executive director of the local United Way.

&#8220We are excited to be a part of 2-1-1,” she added. &#8220We see this as a way to bring a high quality service to our community that can only help our neighbors, friends and families with important basic needs, help in a time of crisis or simply finding a place to volunteer time. I envision 2-1-1 as the number to call.”

If the program is approved, Missouri would become the 20th state to have statewide coverage through a 2-1-1 service. There currently are 209 active 2-1-1 systems operating in 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Non-emergencies only

The 2-1-1 system is designed for non-emergency calls. It is expected to relieve 9-1-1 operators from dealing with non-emergency situations that sometimes slow down emergency response times.

Residents should continue to call local emergency numbers for situations such as medical emergencies, fires and police assistance.

Call centers would be staffed by trained specialists who quickly assess the callers’ needs and refer them to the help they seek. Operators would be available 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, and would have multilingual capabilities.

Cell phones currently are not included in the 2-1-1 service. However, callers on cell phones can access 2-1-1 by calling 1-800-427-4626.

A trained operator would determine the area from which the person is calling as well as the type services that are needed. The operator then would provide contact information for all available services in the caller’s area.

Volunteers and donors also could use 2-1-1 to find out where their service or donations are most needed.

Variety of information

Information is available on a broad range of services, including rent assistance, food banks, affordable housing, health resources, child care, after-school programs, elderly care, financial literacy, and job training programs.

Callers would be referred to agencies that can help with a variety of issues including basic human needs, physical and mental health resources, employment support, help in non-emergency crisis situations and support for older adults, people with disabilities and children.

Staff at the four 2-1-1 data hubs around the state would continually update information about various community services, to ensure telephone numbers, contact names, lists of services offered and other relevant information are current.

Three phases

According to Gary Dollar, president and chief operating officer of the United Way of Greater St. Louis, the new 2-1-1 service will be implemented in three phases.

The first phase, scheduled to begin this summer with AT&T service areas, including St. Francois County, the St. Louis metropolitan area, Cape Girardeau, Springfield, Poplar Bluff, Hannibal, Joplin and Kirksville areas.

Phase 2 would start in the fall and would add CenturyTel customers and the Columbia, Jefferson City, and Willow Springs areas. The third phase would begin in 2008 and would add all remaining telephone companies and state residents.

According to the plan, the 2-1-1 Call Center will be located at the United Way of Greater St. Louis, with data hubs in Cape Girardeau, Columbia, Springfield, and St. Louis. The data hubs will update records about health-related and social services to ensure that callers receive current service information.

&#8220We anticipate having a call volume of about 180,000 requests each year, once the system is mature,” Dollar said. &#8220With community partnerships involving local United Ways, we now have the opportunity to expand upon our already extensive database of health and human service agencies and programs in the St. Louis region to include those organizations throughout the state.”

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