http://danvillesanramon.com/print/story/print/2008/03/28/need-information-dial-211


DanvilleSanRamon.com

Newsfront - March 28, 2008

Need information? Dial 211

Non-crisis helpline saves 911 for real emergencies

by Meghan Neal

Town Council members got the "211" on a new phone service for Contra Costa County at a recent meeting.

Residents throughout the county can call toll-free 211 for information about community social services, Danville Emergency Services Manager Greg Gilbert told the council. The service launched last month.

"I think when it is fully activated, and the public is comfortable with the system, it's going to be a tremendous asset for the residents in the county," said Gilbert.

The idea is to encourage people to dial 211 instead of 911 for non-emergency issues like healthcare assistance, locating homeless shelters or senior programs.

When people misdial 911 it can be both life-threatening and an economic threat to the population, said county 211 director James Matyas. Every minute a 911 dispatcher is tied up with a misdialed call, time is taken away from quick response to potential emergency situations.

Moreover, studies show that implementing 211 saved $4.5 million to $10 million in counties comparable in size to Contra Costa, by reducing the time and resources spent on misdirected calls.

The time and resources are substantial: Studies also show that people looking for social services will call seven to eight wrong numbers before finding the right one - that is, unless they give up altogether.

"We link, guide and connect people to what they need," Matyas said.

Gilbert called the 211 program "another piece in the puzzle" for getting information to the public.

The service is also intended to play a crucial role in disaster recovery by providing people with a central, simple number to call for help - rather than flooding 911 or digging up hard-to-memorize 800 numbers. It was able to handle a multitude of calls in Connecticut when the World Trade Center was bombed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Contra Costa's 211 officially launched Feb. 12 but has been running in test mode since 2006, answering about 1,500 calls per month. Currently 41 states in the U.S. have implemented the service.

The funding for 211 comes from private foundations, and the program is not completely supported for the future, said Matyas. Right now volunteers work the night and weekend shifts, but the goal is to secure enough funds for a fully trained staff 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

In other states, local governments have pitched in to keep the program up and running - something Matyas said he hopes will happen here as well.

"There's a gap in funding and we're trying to look for support from the county and the cities in Contra Costa," he said.

At the council meeting, Town Manager Joe Calabrigo said 211 may be the kind of program that the town would consider providing additional funding for, if it seems worthwhile.

Other N11 numbers

411: Directory assistance

511: Traffic information

611: Telco customer service

711: TDD relay for the deaf

811: Telco business office

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