When you have a medical or safety emergency, you call 911. Most everyone these days understands that when physical or medical safety is at risk, 911 will send police, fire or an ambulance. But what about when you need answers to other situations and just don't know where to go or who to call. Don't call 911. But do call 211.

Never heard of 211? Don't feel like the Lone Ranger (you know, he's that masked cowboy who rode the big white horse and had Tonto to help him). But, 211 is now available to Hamilton, Suwannee and Columbia counties and can be a valuable tool in solving lots of problems in your life.

Supported by United Way, 211 is answered by operators in Jacksonville. The 211 number was assigned in July 2000 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for access to community information referral services. "The commission found that a public need exists for an easy to use, easy to remember number to efficiently bring community information and referral services to those who need them," said United Way of Suwannee Valley Director Rita Dopp.

Last year, the idea of 211 was just a thought. This year, it's a reality. "With 211, the public can dial that number and get help," Dopp said of the social services and other help that is available within the community.

"211 is an information and referral hotline with a personal touch," Dopp said recently. It currently is being funded by United Way, but Dopp came before the Suwannee County Commission to ask for assistance with the financial part of 211. She said the cost for a year of service to the Suwannee County, based on $5 per call cost, would be $5,225 to operate for the 2003-2004 fiscal year. Dopp said United Way has already paid the one-time fees to get the 211 system up and running so the county would not have to pay that cost. No commitments were made by the board.

Dopp said 211 has professionally trained staff with a database of community services at their fingertips ready to help the public at large.

Once the Federal Communications Commission approved the 211 abbreviation, United Way applied and was granted the use of 211, Dopp said. In February, 211 began operating in Duval County and taking calls July 9, 2002. In Suwannee County, the number became operable May 1 of this year, serving Suwannee Columbia, Hamilton, Duval, Clay, St. Johns, Nassau, Baker, Putnam and Bradford counties.

So what type of help can you get from 211? Lots. United Way 211 offers emergency financial assistance, food, shelter, clothing, support groups, help for people with disabilities, HIV/AIDS information and testing, help to victims of abuse and crime, a pathway to adult, child and family services, mental health and substance abuse services for all ages, suicide prevention and intervention and much, much more. The service also has bi-lingual operators who can assist those whose first language is not English.

Dopp said during a disaster, 211 could be used as an emergency operations center in each county and could be used by county emergency groups to assist in answering questions regarding where to find a shelter, road closures and rumor control as well as a myriad of other questions that come up during such times. At this time, there has been no decision locally to use 211 in this capacity.

For those who would like to find out more about 211, you may go to www.nefl211.org.

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