ONEONTA _ Beginning in 1999, Otsego County residents could dial 911 to report a burning building.
For a burning question, they may one day be able to call 211.
The United Way of Broome County is hoping to collaborate with Otsego, Delaware Chenango, Tioga and Broome counties on a 211 hotline for health and human services information.
"We're asking for your help and your support to bring this to your community," said Candace Gregory of the United Way of Broome County.
Gregory was at the FoxCare Center in Oneonta on Thursday to promote the idea of a clearinghouse for non-emergency calls for information to more than 30 area human services providers and emergency officials.
United Way of Broome County already manages an information and referral hotline for Broome, Chenango and Tioga counties, but the number 211 is not yet in use and the service is smaller in scope than what is envisioned, said Gregory, the director of 2-1-1 Susquehanna River Region, which encompasses the five counties.
Still in the planning phase, the service would handle inquiries on a wide range of subjects, she said.
Examples given included inquires about food stamps, how to obtain child care and even how to get in touch with the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.
The calls would be made by dialing 211 and they would first go to a call center open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The callers would then be provided the phone number to the agency, group or organization that would best be able to assist them, Gregory said.
Emergency calls from suicidal people or about any
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other dangerous situation could be automatically routed to the existing 911 center in each county, she said.
Although Gregory said she did not have a cost for the implementation of a regional 211 system, she said her agency is eying a launch in January 2009.
"What we want is a statewide (211) system," Gregory said.
The implementation of statewide 211 services is being driven by a 2-1-1 New York group, which includes nine regional 2-1-1 affiliates including Gregory's group. 2-1-1 New York is an initiative of the United Way of New York State and the New York State Alliance of Information and Referral Systems, Inc.
The regional 211 organization will have to follow national and state guidelines, Gregory said.
"The next step will be pulling together our collaborative board. We need some folks from Otsego. We need some folks from Delaware," Gregory said.
Some local officials said they were concerned they would be left out of the loop by a regional 211 system.
Oneonta Fire Chief Robert Barnes said information from the callers that could be valuable to emergency coordinators might not be available on the local level through the regionally-managed call center.
Barnes and others, including Delaware County Emergency Services Director Richard Bell, said they were concerned a 211 system could lead to a duplication of existing efforts by emergency and non-emergency service providers if it is not done right.
"There needs to be a good, coordinated, driven plan of attack," Bell said.
Some at the meeting wondered if people who live on the edges of counties and use services in counties not within the 2-1-1 Susquehanna River Region would get referred to the agencies that are closest to them.
But Gregory said the 211 system will involve a statewide database that will allow operators to link these residents up with the nearest services even if they are not in the five-county region.
Three members of the Otsego County Board of Representatives attended the meeting.
Both James Powers, R-Butternuts, and Betty Anne Schwerd, R-Burlington, said they supported looking into the idea but there needs to be more concrete understanding of the overall cost of regional implementation of 211 and what Otsego County may be asked to contribute.
Powers said it is too late to specifically appropriate 211 funding for the 2008 fiscal year within the budget.
"I really do think its probably worth looking into," Powers said.
The county currently has a "hodge-podge" of numbers that people may call for assistance and information, Powers said.
Often, callers can get lost in the shuffle, Schwerd said.
There is a great need in the county for a centralized information and referral system, Schwerd said.
"(211) would take a burden off county employees too," Schwerd said.
Gregory Relic, R-Unadilla, also attended the meeting but left before the end.
The United Way of Broome County was unable to provide a cost estimate for implementation of 211 or what would be asked of each participating county.
"This we do not know yet," Gregory said.
The agency has three full-time employees that take calls for its existing service in Broome, Chenango and Tioga counties, she said.
"We do need to hire more people," Gregory said.
In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission cleared the way for the use of 211 nationwide as a information and referral phone number.
Roughly 20 percent of state residents live in an area where 211 is in use, according to 2-1-1 New York.