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Cell phones offer emergency link
SafeLink program gives residents in need a way to call for help
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Under the struggling economy, fewer people have the access they need to emergency services.

However, a federally-funded program that offers a free cell phone and free calling minutes could help lower income residents call for help immediately.

TracFone Wireless, one of the nation’s top prepaid cell phone providers, launched SafeLink Wireless in Georgia recently to distribute Lifeline, a federal program that ensures telephone service is available and affordable to all.

"This economy is really tough, and the program gives people a helping hand," said Callisto Griffith, a representative for TracFone. "A lot of people are looking for a way to get a job or support families, and this helps them get a hold of employers or emergency services."

The program was created in 1984 for landline service to rural and poor communities. But after Hurricane Katrina and the 2001 terrorist attacks, customers without landlines could not reach hospitals or talk to families.

"In this day and age, the cell phone is the way to communicate," Griffith said. "Most companies have contracts and hidden fees, but this is 100 percent free for those who qualify."

To qualify, participants must be assisted by another state or federal program, such as federal public housing assistance, food stamps or Medicaid, or have a household income below poverty guidelines set by the state or federal government. The program offers a free cell phone, 68 minutes of talking time monthly and features such as voicemail, texting, call waiting, caller ID and some international calling.

Lifeline is funded by the Federal Communications Commission and Universal Service Fund through fees that all telecommunications carriers are required to pay each year.

"The program is primarily designed for emergency service, and the minutes roll over each month if they’re not used. So individuals use it for that and quick phone calls," said Jose Fuentes, director of government relations for TracFone.

"A subscriber in North Carolina had a flat tire and was stranded, so the service is important in instances like that. We regularly receive letters, and some say it’s their only way of communication now, and it’s 24 hours a day, so it’s a huge comfort level."

There are currently no subscribers in Hall County or its surrounding areas. Diane Currans, health programs manager for Gainesville’s Legacy Link council on aging, said the emergency services offered still are tied to landline use.

"What we offer is a button in their home, and it’s not in use with cell phones," she said. "And it’s a program we can only offer if they already use Medicaid."

Currans said other emergency programs, such as home-delivered meals or home checks after bad weather, are only available for local residents they are familiar with.

"If there’s a senior on oxygen or has to go to a dialysis center, those companies know where their clients are and can check on them," she said. "But those who don’t have any of these services — frail and elderly people who live alone and depend on others — may have to take care of themselves during emergencies."

The Gainesville-Hall County Senior Life Center offers several programs for seniors to stay safe and avoid emergencies, said Nancy Simpson, the center’s senior programs coordinator.

The center offers free night lights to seniors to limit the risk of falling in the dark, and free electric fans to combat the heat in summer months.

"We’re a dropoff location for the public to donate fans, and we have a running list of folks in the community who need one," Simpson said Friday. "The phone has been ringing off the hook today with people waiting to be on the list."

But for emergency assistance, communication is key.

"One of our subscribers was thankful for the service during her second pregnancy," Griffith said. "When she had her first, there was no way for her to contact anyone."

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