Just as you now dial 911 for emergency services, you will one day be able to dial 211 anywhere in the United States or Canada to get access to community health and human services information and referral, such as adult day care, congregate meals, Meals on Wheels, respite care, home health care, transportation, and homemaker services. The "211" initiative was started in Atlanta and is spreading across the country, led by the United Way of America and the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the designation of the "211" phone number for this purpose last July, and initiatives are underway in every state to develop plans to implement this program. The service is currently available in Atlanta, Georgia; Columbus, Georgia; Lafayette, Louisiana; Knox County, Tennessee; and the entire state of Connecticut.
Canadians are also working on a 211 initiative. An application was filed with the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) last June by United Way of Canada, InformCanada, United Way of Greater Toronto and Community Information Toronto, requesting that the 211 designation be reserved for a health and human services information referral system. The CRTC has is considering the prosposal and last November announced a public process where they will solicit input and comments about this application. All incumbent telephone companies and competitive local exchange carriers are made parties to this proceeding, and they may file reply comments with the Commission by 12 February 2001, after which the Commission will make its decision.
The 211 program will greatly simplify the process of finding services to help older people. Phone calls are answered by personnel trained to help assess needs, identify services which are available, and route callers to appropriate organizations. Many cities have hundreds of social service organizations, and often these services are not listed in the phone book by type of service. Setting aside 211 also gives people a single number to call when they are in crisis ? they won?t have to dial agency after agency searching for help.
When United Way 211 Atlanta switched from using a longer helpline number to the shorter, simpler 211 number, call volume to its operations center increased. People who dial Atlanta?s 211 operation speak to trained information and referral specialists who listen closely to pinpoint callers? needs, and then search a large up-to-date database to find organizations that match the caller?s requirements. Later, a specialist calls back to be sure callers got the help they needed. In addition, the Atlanta center records the number of times they refer callers to different services, and keeps note of what callers say during follow-up sessions, and this information is used to create a database that can be used to gauge the metro Atlanta area?s social service needs.
Most of the objections to the designation of 211 as a national referral number came from organizations concerned about possible confusion between the use of 911 and 211. The coalition's response is that they intend to use 211 for non-emergency calls, and to send emergency calls to 911. To that end, they are working with 911 agencies to find ways to use conference calling and other processes to route callers to the right destination.