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Central, northern New York getting access to 211 phone service


In January, all of New York state will be involved with the 211 call service. The plan is to reduce the number of calls to 911, while helping those who need assistance get help.

Brenda Episcopo, executive director of the United Way of the Valley and Greater Utica Area, says the service is a mix of 911 and 411.

"211 is an easy to remember phone number to call for help and health and information services," Episcopo said. "So if, for example, you're having trouble making rent this month and maybe you were just able to pay the rent, but you need help with groceries to get by for the month, you could call 211 and say who could help me?"

Those calling the line are given specialized help to address their needs, rather than have to fish around for the right organization.

"The operators of the call centers are actually certified specialists who are able to screen the calls to figure out exactly what kind of help the caller needs, determine eligibility for the services out there, at least at an initial level, and make the most appropriate referral the first time," Episcopo explained.

Ninety percent of the nation and about 93 percent of New York residents have access to 211, but the service is still absent in parts of central and northern New York, including Madison, Oswego, Onondaga and Oneida counties.

Episcopo says that lack of service became an issue in 2013, when severe floods ravaged parts of Oneida, Madison and Herkimer counties.

"FEMA put a phone number out for people to call," Episcopo said. "People thought they were calling there for help, that's not why they were calling. FEMA was collecting damage information, so they could determine if it reached the threshold where fema could help, and it didn't. And so they told people, well thank you for reporting your damage, if you need long-term help call 211. And we don't have it, so folks were left without a resource."

Episcopo says once New York establishes 211 as a statewide program, emergency information can be quickly shared anywhere and callers can access the same information no matter which of the state's five call centers answers the phone.

"It makes it easy for the person to get help," Episcopo said. "And it makes it easy for the human service organizations to work together and create one robust information and referral list, instead of every agency spending time and resources building their own lists to refer people when they need to."

The program in Herkimer, Madison and Oneida counties is expected to cost about $175,000 during its first year, but will decrease once the service is up and running smoothly.

In 2012, the state's five call centers handled about 2.5 million 211 phone calls, and its website got nearly 14 million hits.