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Maureen McMullen, Published February 09 2014

FirstLink uses awareness day to put spotlight on 2-1-1 hotline

FARGO – Most people know the number to dial during an emergency, but Cindy Miller hopes to spread the word about a lesser-known hotline.

Miller is the executive director of FirstLink, a nonprofit organization that answers calls dialed to 2-1-1, a helpline that assists callers dealing with personal struggles.

Through 2-1-1 Awareness Day, which corresponds with its Feb. 11 date, Miller intends to clarify “mixed messages” about the helpline’s purpose.

“We found a phonebook that said, ‘For help or service on the road, call 2-1-1.’ Well, that’s not what we do,” Miller said. “2-1-1 is for a 24-hour community resource helpline, with all kinds of resources.”

FirstLink, which was established as a volunteer center in 1968, started the hotline in 1971 to assist Cass and Clay County residents in need.

Today, dialing 2-1-1 connects callers with a FirstLink volunteer who can refer them to a variety of community resources, including disaster assistance and volunteer opportunities, as well as assistance paying for food and bills.

Along with volunteer opportunities and resource referrals, FirstLink’s volunteers also are trained to handle suicide intervention.

Of the 46,282 calls FirstLink’s hotline received last year, 2,600 were from people contemplating suicide.

“It’s amazing how, if someone is just there listening to them, if someone tells them they care, what a difference that can make and how often our calls are de-escalated,” said Miller.

During crisis calls, volunteers help create a plan to keep the caller safe, such as referrals to affordable counseling and help with substance abuse.

Though FirstLink responds to calls throughout North Dakota and Clay County in Minnesota, 2-1-1 is a nationwide hotline sponsored by United Way and the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems.

For more information, dial 2-1-1 or log on to www.myfirstlink.org.

Three-digit hotlines

111: Not in use.

211: FirstLink community resource helpline.

311: Not in use.

411: Directory service, such as phone number and address lookup.

511: Road information and road assistance hotline operated by the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

611: Some phone companies use this number as a hotline

for customers to report problems with their service.

711: Minnesota Relay, a free, government-funded service that helps people with hearing, speech or visual disabilities make phone calls.

811: A federally mandated national hotline, “Call Before You Dig” advises how and where to dig without hitting or cutting an underground utility line.