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211 Northwest Florida to serve region as 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline call center

A screenshot of Veterans Crisis Line — Behind the Scenes.
A screenshot of Veterans Crisis Line — Behind the Scenes.

211 Northwest Florida is set to become the state's 13th certified Lifeline Center.

This means for the first-time ever, area residents who call the new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline), soon will be able to access a trained crisis counselor who also lives in this region and is familiar with local resources.

988 launched nationwide in July and has been ramping up Florida. While all 67 counties in the state have had coverage for calls through the current network, the ability to connect to someone local hasn’t always been available.

“About 18 months ago, we learned that Northwest West Florida calls that went to the national suicide line operated by the National SPL (Suicide Prevention Lifeline) were being directed to Pinellas County,” said Michael Martin, director of 211 Northwest Florida, which is supported by United Way of West Florida.

“So, anybody from Escambia or Santa Rosa or Okaloosa County that called the national suicide prevention lifeline were being sent to Pinellas County.”

According to Martin, this was because there wasn’t a qualified resource, with the proper training and 24/7 staffing coverage, available here in this region.

But, now that’s about to change, as the 211 Northwest Florida helpline is set to become the state’s 13th certified 988 Crisis Call Center.

The Agreement to join the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network is being signed this week, over a year after 211 Northwest Florida submitted application and began attending the state’s 988 Planning Coalition meetings.

“We weren’t immediately involved in that planning process,” Martin began. “But, we were invited by the 988 coalition to join in order to serve Northwest Florida. So, at that point, we went into high gear to begin the training process to meet the requirements of the National SPL Network.”

The 211 operation in Northwest Florida has been continuously accredited by the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS) since 2013, and is now ready to officially join the Lifeline Network.

The certification process has involved small-group training, one-on-one instruction, and completion of a training session developed by 211 Northwest Florida’s resource manager, Avalon "Mal" Mallory.

“She provides a one-hour video training, with a worksheet,” said Martin. “So, each of the staff members will view the training on line, like a webinar.”

In one part of the training video, Mallory focuses on use of the Lifeline Safety Assessment Model, which calls on the specialists taking the 988 crisis line calls to collaborate with the distressed individuals on the other end of the line, to use active listening, and work to identify the least invasive intervention.

The trainee’s response demonstrated his understanding of the need to keep it simple and using the right tools for the job, Whenever you’re in a garden, you can use a nice little trowel, instead of a backhoe. It makes planting little, tiny flowers much more easy.”

The 120-hour training program also involved practicing skills learned through mock calls from Martin, based on crisis calls he’s taken over the years.

“Afterwards, we do a review of the mock call,” said Martin, who also sends the trainee a recording of the mock call to have them conduct their own self-analysis. “Because it’s a totally different experience when you’re doing it and you’re being told what happened than when you actually listen to yourself manage the call.”

In Florida, the Department of Children and Families Statewide Office for Suicide Prevention has been designated to coordinate the state’s suicide prevention efforts. DCF, currently supports 988 through two federal funding sources, including a capacity building grant in the sum of $5.2 million over two years and supplemental Community Mental Health Block Grant funding from the American Rescue Plan in the amount of $16.8 million over two years. The Department is in the process of identifying long-term sustainable funding.

According to Martin, the state has already provided the opportunity for funding to increase his 211 staff from 15 to 19 by the end of the year in order to operate the 988 lifeline 24/7. All are receiving the crisis training, but only a few will be dedicated to the lifeline.

“We will have a specified number of lines, probably two, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But, if you look at the statistics for our service area, that’s about the max that we get on an hourly basis,” he said.

If both local lines are tied up, the call to 988 will be routed to Northwest Florida’s backup call center, 211 Big Bend in Tallahassee. If their lines are unavailable, the call will go to the first available crisis center across the nation.

The final stage of 988 certification for 211 Northwest Florida involved a clinical review of their training and services, even though Martin emphasizes that call-takers, referred to as specialists, are not mental health professionals.

And, to specifically address social media rumors, the 211 crisis call specialists have no authority to have anyone committed through the Baker Act.

211 Northwest Florida will take 988 calls for six counties, including Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, and Bay counties. The target date for launch was set for Oct. 1.

But, Martin said testing this week identified technical difficulties with the two local toll-free lines being developed for the network, which means the Northwest Florida’s crisis call center won't likely begin fielding calls until next week.

“Because there can be no busy signal,” Martin declared. “And, anybody that calls 998 will talk to a human being within a minute.”

Data on suicide hotline calls in Florida since the beginning of 2022 show a monthly average of 9,427 in-state calls received, with an in-state answer rate of 60%, and average speed of answer (ASA) of about 33 seconds.

If you or someone you know needs support now, call or text 988 or chat with a counselor online at 988Lifeline.org.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.