Information hotline

Filed under: Opinion |

The Pikes Peak United Way celebrated the first anniversary of its 2-1-1 information service this week.

The hotline was designed to assist residents who have questions about non-emergency health and social services resources.

Before 2-1-1, those questions often were directed to the police department’s 9-1-1 emergency dispatch. Because of the new information service, law enforcement dispatchers are able to transfer non-emergency calls, thus freeing the 9-1-1 system for life-threatening and crisis calls.

“When we looked at this back three years ago and four years ago, there was really no central reservoir of information in the community, and we’ve filled that void,” said Jerry Smith, CEO of the United Way. “It’s proven to be a very strategically sound decision. We’re very pleased with not only the service we provide but the feedback that we get from people who have been helped.”

Anne Beer, manager of community information systems for the United Way, said the toughest part of launching the hotline was getting the word out that it was available.

“A lot of our effort this past year has been outreach,” she said. “We’ve gone out to people who deal with people in need. More people know we’re here and what we do.”

More than 7,000 residents used 2-1-1 during its first year of operation, Beer said. The majority of the callers had questions about housing and utility assistance, followed by callers seeking food assistance.

“We’re up to better than 850 calls a month, and it really gives us a direct link into the needs of the community,” Smith said. “When you think about the impact of that and the ability to get people access to services that they need efficiently, it’s very important.”

More than three-quarters, 76 percent, of callers to 2-1-1 are female, according to a United Way report, and 66.5 percent of callers have children. Sixty-eight percent of 2-1-1 callers were unemployed. The average income of those seeking assistance is $8,140 annually.

The Pikes Peak United Way is a founding member of the 2-1-1 Colorado Collaborative, a group of eight organizations that are working to ensure that all Colorado residents have access to 2-1-1.

“Currently, five of the seven regions have launched 2-1-1 call centers serving 85 percent of the state’s population and are actively working outreach to the remote counties in their areas,” Beer said.

The San Luis Valley call center, which is the southwest region, is being launched this summer. The southeast center, Pueblo, has received funding and is in the planning phase.

The goal of the collaborative is to have complete statewide coverage by October 2007.

As for year two in the Pike’s Peak region, the United Way’s outreach and service through 2-1-1 will continue, Beer said. And she hopes that the information and data the organization has been gathering, such as demographics, will prove useful to other community groups.

“We’re trying to figure out how best to serve people and let people know where here,” Beer said. “We’re trying to figure out what kind of data people need and provide that information to the community.”

Smith agreed. “As we continue to get the calls and build the database,” he said, “we obtain more empirical information about what the needs are in the community and start to formulate plans about how to address those.”

It also is important to reach out to organizations that provide help for those in need and ensure that they are part of the 2-1-1 system, Smith said.

“We need to make sure that we continue to enhance the database,” he said. “We want to make sure we continue to grow that base of information.”

Beer said that in the next year she hopes that 2-1-1 will be an active participant in the Emergency Response System, allowing people in times of emergencies such as weather catastrophes, natural disasters or terror attacks to be able to call a three-digit number, instead of a seven-digit number for help.

“2-1-1 could be the funnel,” she said.

Smith’s vision for the future of 2-1-1 is to have a hotline that is available at any time on any day.

“We can expand to other areas of the community – other counties,” he said. “We can do some coordination with other 2-1-1 providers in the state to access information and get coverage around the clock so that we are 7/24/52 eventually.”

2-1-1 information assistance is available in 32 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

Mike Boyd is editor of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. He can be reached at mike.boyd@csbj.com or 329-5206.