211 service active now, may compete with county's own phone helpline

Between now and the end of February, Barnwell County residents have a choice of who they call for help with questions related to human services.

Since 1980, county residents have been able to call (803) 259-3333, a local helpline, to find answers, mostly on public and human services. The number is available seven days a week, 24 hours a day and is provided by the Axis 1 Center of Barnwell, the substance abuse intervention and counseling service agency in the county.

However, since Dec. 23, the information number 211 has been active in Barnwell County. The number is not active in the whole state and not in the county since it already has the Axis 1 helpline.

211 is an information and referral number being operated nationally under the auspices of the United Way of America, the collective charity organization.

The S.C. Broadcasters Association asked the state United Way to activate the 211 system statewide until the end of February as an emergency measure while the nation is making the switch from analog television broadcasting to digital, said Fred Geier, the United Way director for Barnwell County.

On Feb. 17, analog television transmission will end and all broadcasters must transmit in digital format. Most full-power television stations are already broadcasting digitally, according to data from the S.C. Broadcasters Association.

Digital broadcasting will allow better picture and sound quality as well as added programming choices and interactivity with broadcasts that analog couldn't provide.

Television viewers who do not already have a digital television or receive television broadcasts via a cable or satellite provider will not be able to receive television programming after Feb. 17 unless they have a converter box hooked into their analog television set.

The state broadcasters group asked United Way to activate 211 in South Carolina because many elderly people get their news by television and may not understand the intricacies of switching from analog to digital broadcasting. Also the transition made for a good excuse to test the statewide 211 system, Geier said.

The 211 system was installed in Barnwell County but it was never activated since the county had the 259-3333 helpline, he said.

However, 211 has the advantage of handling a large volume of calls, which can be a benefit if a major emergency occurred in the county, Geier said.

Also, 211 can be handled by the state or even national 211 system if needed, he said.

211 has three call centers in the state: Aiken, Columbia and Charleston. If during an emergency in Barnwell County and the regional Aiken call center is at capacity with calls, then other calls could be routed to Columbia or Charleston or even out-of-state, Geier said.

"The beauty is that data from a laptop (computer) can be loaded up and sent to a 211 operator nationally as long as they've got wireless (Internet access) and a phone," he said.

The local helpline is staffed by Axis 1 employees or volunteers. The 259-3333 number is forwarded to the volunteer on call from either Axis 1 or the county's 911 central dispatch. During business hours, Axis 1 fields helpline calls, said Cheryl Long, the Axis 1 director.

Answering those calls adds work on already busy Axis 1 employees, who are busier since budget cutbacks forced reductions in staff last year, Long said.

The helpline was created in 1980 at the same time Axis 1 developed the thrift shop and the food bank as a three-pronged answer to needs in the county, she said.

Last year United Way cut back in the funding it gives to Axis 1. That causes Axis 1 to receive less matching money from other funding sources, Long said.

"I don't see 211 as competition. I do see it as a waste of money because we have a system and we get so much more," she said.

The benefit of the local helpline is that it is local and callers can establish a rapport with local call operators or volunteers. Call takers are bound by confidentiality agreements not to divulge personal information about callers, she said.

However, because call takers might recognize the caller, they might recommend to the caller particular people in the community that could help them, Long said.

Backing up local helpline staffers are people on call with mental health, the Department of Social Services or Axis 1 if the staffer needs them or wants to switch their call over to one of these people, Long said.

"The good thing is when we get someone calling frequently that sounds strange, we can call other agencies to help," she said.

"Whether it's the United Way or somebody else - it's somebody's life on the line. My big thing is the helpline is to help people and to feel safe when you call," she said. "We've done a lot of calls for the elderly."

The local aspect of the helpline is one appeal of the service. Also, Long doesn't want a phone number that people would feel uncomfortable to call, she said.

Yet the helpline's local benefit is also its liability, Geier said.

"The advantage of 259-3333 is it's a local person answering it. It's also its disadvantage," he said.

"Right now the 211 number won't do what the 259-3333 number can do because we don't have the local numbers loaded into the (211) database. We are one of the few counties in the state with its own independent helplines," Geier said.

Although Geier is interesting in seeing 211 in Barnwell County, he has been a call volunteer for the local helpline for the last 11 months.

211 would be good for the county in the event a catastrophe occurred because of the call volume the system can handle compared to the one phone line for the 259-3333 number, he said.

During a call test sponsored by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control in June 2007, the 211 system took a call capacity of 800 calls in an hour's time, Geier said.

The 211 system first came into use in 1997 when the Georgia Public Service Commission started a 211 number. In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission granted 211 reserved status as a service number, like 411 or 911, said Charlotte Anderson, the director of the Charleston call center.

The Charleston 211 system for the first time in 2008 received more than 50,000 calls. The historic city has had the system since 2003. Columbia was the first area in the state with 211 when it activated in 2001, she said.

Most of the calls that Charleston 211 receives are questions about where to find basic needs such as food and shelter or concerning unemployment benefits or jobs, Anderson said.

Another benefit Geier sees with 211 is that for areas that first implement it, the 211 system conducts a profile of the area and what its human service needs are, he said.