Staff and wire reports
It's still months away, but the state Public Service Commission is getting closer to authorizing free community referral services through telephone calls similar to the current 911 emergency system.
The commission earlier this year adopted a temporary rule change to allow a 211 community service system for callers on a trial basis.
The Federal Communications Commission has designated the phone number as a national dialing code for community information and referrals -- covering everything from housing to counseling services -- that are urgent but not handled by 911 emergency operators.
The commission held a public hearing Wednesday on making the temporary rule permanent and must rule within 90 days. The temporary rule expires in September.
The Heart of America United Way has applied to provide 211 service in SBC Communications Inc. exchanges in 16 western counties on a pilot basis, with the potential to expand later. The United Way hopes to win approval from the commission within a few weeks. Even when that occurs, commission staff expect it would take another six months for the service to get up and running.
The counties the United Way plans to serve include Andrew, Bates, Buchanan, Caldwell, Cass, Clay, Clinton, DeKalb, Henry, Jackson, Johnson, Lafayette, Pettis, Platte, Ray and Saline.
Cape Girardeau will likely be included in 211 service if the pilot program is successful, according to Nancy Jernigan, executive director with United Way of Southeast Missouri based in Cape Girardeau.
"We let them know we were interested," she said. "We're very much interested in jumping on board."
Jernigan said the 211 system would replace First Call for Help, which currently offers the same service for Cape Girar-deau County.
Having a system like First Call for Help or 211 is important because many people do not know how to access information they need, Jernigan said. With these systems, callers can be directed to any services that are available, whether it is about emergency weather situations, flu shot information, travelers aid or evacuations routes.
To date, the United Way is the only organization that has applied to provide the service. The proposed rule would allow only nonprofit organizations to offer the service, but after hearing concerns, commission staff said they would be open to expanding it to also include government entities, such as libraries.
Staff writer Kathryn Alfisi contributed to this report.