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New 2-1-1 information and referral system eyed for tri-county area

PLATTSBURGH A new information and referral system is in the works for Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, with the objective of giving callers in the tri-county area easier access to information. In a press conference held Tuesday afternoon, John C. Bernardi, executive director of the United Way of Clinton and Essex Counties, stated a steering committee established by the United Way has been in the planning and development phase of a regional 2-1-1 telephone system since last summer. Representatives from the three counties came together to explore the need, feasibility and design of a system that would connect callers with health and human services programs and services in the North Country. The system would operate similar to that of a 9-1-1 emergency or 4-1-1 information system, said Bernardi. The caller would dial the appropriate number to reach a central call center where an operator would be standing by 24 hours a day. Similar systems are already operational across the country, including the Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes regions and New York City. This is a great service in many ways, said Bernardi, who also serves as steering committee chairman. Its important for emergencies in times of disaster but is also very important for the day-to-day health and human service needs that people face. It is, at times, difficult for people to navigate the [current] system and to get the information they need. 211 will be a very accessible and great way for people to get that information. The services the system would primarily help people locate, said Bernardi, would range anywhere from mental health and child care services to domestic violence concerns and even agencies that could assist people in need of home heating fuel. Really, any health and human service need you can possibly think of, he said. Kelly C. Donoghue, assistant director of the Clinton County Office of Emergency Services, said the new system would not only be beneficial for the general public, but would also benefit 9-1-1 operators who can be inundated with calls for concerns other than emergencies. Sometimes [operators] receive nonessential emergency calls looking for information, sheltering, where to get dry ice or things like that, Donoghue said as an example. Those types of calls are not really for 911 ... This will take the pressure off the 911 system. The best way to think of it is if you have an emergency, you call 911, said Ronald E. Jackson, vice chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors, who also serves on the committee. When you dial 211, youll be connected to someone who, if they cant answer every detail or take you the whole way down the path, will get you to that person or at least take you part-way down the path and pass you off to another office to complete the process. While calls to the system would be of no cost to the caller, there is a cost to develop and operate the system. The cost of planning and developing the system is being covered by a combination of in-kind local resources and state funding made available through 2-1-1 New York, the organization which facilitates the implementation of 2-1-1 systems. The overall cost to operate the system is estimated at $100,000 per year, said Bernardi. That amount would be funded through public-private partnerships such as the United Way and through major gifts and endowments. The design of our model is, in our opinion, the most cost effective way to do this, said Bernardi. If we were looking at building a call center from the ground up, we would be looking at millions of dollars to do that, not only to build it, but to operate it each year. The service, including the development and maintenance of a comprehensive system database, will be contracted out to an already operational call center or other interested organization. Working closely with Ana Winans, director of 2-1-1 New York, the steering committee has begun to move forward with soliciting requests for proposals from organizations within the state. The committee is expected to review the proposals over the summer and select an entity by the fall. The development of the system database would take approximately six months, said Bernardi, with the anticipation of launching the system in early 2009. A large component of establishing the 2-1-1 system will also be public education, Bernardi added. The committee is expected to take full advantage of media outlets in the tri-county area to promote the service and explain how it will work prior to its implementation.

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