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South Williamsport, PA
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County Hall Corner – Help is Three-Digits Away

Everyone knows about calling 911 when there is an emergency requiring the police, fire, or ambulance services. What is not nearly as well known is calling 211, the number for information on available social services. At a recent County Commissioners Meeting, Jack McKernan distributed pamphlets to the “Help Line” serving North-Eastern Pennsylvania, including Lycoming County.

Everyone knows about calling 911 when there is an emergency requiring the police, fire, or ambulance services. What is not nearly as well known is calling 211, the number for information on available social services. At a recent County Commissioners Meeting, Jack McKernan distributed pamphlets to the “Help Line” serving North-Eastern Pennsylvania, including Lycoming County. Simply dialing 211 at any time on any day can access a vast array of valuable information and referral services.

For individuals, as well as families, in need, this number will connect to information and referral for everything from supplemental food assistance, energy assistance, homeless services, insurance for children, child abuse/neglect reports, acquiring social security and even evacuation procedures for the disabled.

Help Line is an information and referral service and first response point for crisis calls in Lycoming, Clinton, Sullivan, Union, and twelve other counties in northern Pennsylvania. It operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, staffed by trained caseworkers as a program of the Family Service Association of NEPA (North Eastern Pennsylvania Alliance).

The idea of a 3-digit emergency number began with 911, which was established in 1968 by AT&T (who held a monopoly on phone service at the time). Other help services that would have appreciated a shortcut such as this had to do with the traditional ten-digit telephone numbers. This was until the Federal Communications Commission determined in 1992 to reserve seven other N11 numbers. Currently, 811 is designed for underground public utility locations (dial before you dig!), 711 for the deaf and hard of hearing, 611 for telephone company customer service, 511 for traffic and weather information, 411 for directory assistance, and 311 for municipal government services. 211 is designated for community services and information, generally served by United Way organizations in most parts of the United States.

Dialing 211 in our region connects to Help Line, a program of Family Services Association of Northeastern Pennsylvania and funded in part by the United Way. Help Line was established in 1972 after Hurricane Agnes to provide a central resource for vital information for the victims of this devastating disaster. In 1975 Help Line entered into agreements with a number of area agencies to provide 24-hour crisis services. Soon after, other agencies signed onto the service and their area of service rapidly expanded.

Many people who are looking for aid assistance or help information often do not know where to begin, and thus dialing 211 is of great benefit. It cuts through the red tape of endless menus that are often encountered when calling government offices or other aid agencies. Generally, during normal business hours, answering 211 will be a real human being that can answer questions and provide vital information and contact information to most of the local health and human resources agencies and organizations. It even has translation service available, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If experience counts for anything, it is very impressive that Help Line has handled over 2.8 million calls since the start of operations in 1972.

Programs and organizations go through changes, and it is hard to keep up. So, from trying to locate the nearest AA group, to reporting a runaway, to any kind of help needed in the area of health and human services, Help Line can be reached by simply dialing 211. The service is free, confidential, and absolutely trustworthy. Help Line is a member of the Alliance of Information & Referral Systems (AIRS) and the Pennsylvania Alliance of Information & Referral Systems (PA AIRS).

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