There is a new set of digits in the 419 area code that officials hope will become just as well known as 911.
Residents in Lucas and Ottawa counties can now dial 211 for free access to information about social services and programs.
It's a 24-hour service that the United Way of Greater Toledo has offered for some time through its First Call for Help program. But as of 11 a.m. yesterday, the new, easy-to-remember three-digit number will let residents get information about a variety of programs, including adoption, workers compensation, and volunteer opportunities.
"The United Way just made it a lot easier to get help and to give help," said Robert Lucas, the organization's president.
While services offered through 211 vary between communities, the purpose of the system is to provide callers with confidential social service information and referrals for everyday needs and in times of crisis. It does not replace 911, which will still handle all emergency situations, but will enhance it by providing a nonemergency number to contact, officials said.
Cell phone and pay phone users will still have to use the agency's longer number: 800-650-HELP.
For Toledoan Jozef Berkof, the United Way's help line is an invaluable resource. Mr. Berkof, 62, recently moved to Toledo with his wife and needed help finding both a job and medical care.
"I talked to the United Way," he said. "I was surprised there was help available after being told before by others, 'You're on your own.' "
Lucas and Ottawa county residents are now joining the nearly 108 million Americans - about 37 percent of the population - that have access to 211, a number designated by the Federal Communications Commission in July, 2000. According to the United Way of America and the Alliance for Information and Referral Systems, there are now 145 active 211 systems covering all or part of 31 states plus Washington.
Wood County, however, is not yet among them. Although serviced by the United Way of Greater Toledo, Wood County will unveil 211 later this year through The Link, a mental health care provider. The number has been up and running in Fulton County since September, 2003, and in Williams, Fulton, Henry, and Defiance counties since February, 2004.
In Ohio, there are 16 operational programs providing coverage in 30 counties. The Ohio Council of Information and Referral Providers estimated that about 7 million Ohio residents, or 61 percent of the population, has access to the 211 services. Those numbers will go up with Lucas and Ottawa counties coming on board, said Tom Waniewski, chairman of the United Way board of trustees' community outreach services advisory committee.
About 45,000 calls are expected to come in annually on the local 211, up from about 30,000 that are fielded now. To help with the added calls, a third trained operator was hired, Mr. Waniewski said.
But no donor dollars will be used for the program. Financial help from corporations and social service agencies paid for start-up costs and the $45,000 estimated to run the program per year.
"We're good for a couple of years, and then we hope that the help that the program will bring to area agencies will convince them to support it," Mr. Waniewski said.
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