At your fingertips
New 3-digit information numbers

Todd Wallack, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 6, 2002    

Scoot over, 411 and 911. Soon some California residents will be able to dial 211 and 511, too, for help.

Starting in the next few weeks, they'll be able to call 511 in the Bay Area for answers to local transportation questions, whether it's up-to-the-minute traffic reports or advice on which bus to take.

And beginning next year, residents may be able to call 211 in six Bay Area counties to reach a social service hot line that will connect them to a food bank, drug treatment center or battered women's shelter.

Proponents say the new three-digit codes will soon be as ubiquitous as 411 and 911, which have been used for decades to provide directory assistance and emergency calls.

Two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission officially set aside 211 for social service hot lines and 511 for transportation information. Already, 511 works in parts of seven states, while 211 is used in 18 states. Now the concept is attracting strong interest in California.

"It's catching on quite well," said Joe Salerno, a network engineer for Verizon Communications who is helping to implement the three-digit codes in California.

Though nonprofits and government agencies already offer an assortment of free hot lines via traditional phone numbers, proponents say the so-called N11 codes will replace a quiltwork of complicated seven-digit and 10-digit numbers that often vary from one city to the next.

"It's just easier to remember," said Sharon DeCray, program director for Alameda County's social service hot line, Eden I&R.

After Eden starts using the 211 code in Alameda County, for instance, DeCray expects call volume to surge nearly tenfold during the next 18 months.

DeCray has reason to be optimistic. Call volumes tripled at an Atlanta social service agency after it became the first to use 211 in 1997. And in a three-month test, a Cincinnati transit line received 72 percent more calls after it switched to 511.

Later this month or in early December, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is scheduled to become the first agency in the state to use 511 for its transportation hot line, TravInfo, which serves all nine Bay Area counties.

Currently, the MTC's hot line (817-1717 in most Bay Area area codes) receives about 65,000 calls a month. However, Randy Rentschler, an MTC spokesman, said the commission expects the volume to surge once it starts using 511. (MTC still plans to keep its seven-digit number as well.)

VOICE RECOGNITION

To coincide with the 511 launch, MTC is planning a major upgrade. It will start using voice recognition and a computer to handle common questions and forward more specific queries to live operators at other transit agencies, such as BART and Muni.

The MTC will also have to pay local telephone companies $138,000 to program their switches to forward 511 calls in nine counties to its toll-free telephone number. But Rentschler notes that's less than one-fifth the amount it is spending on the voice-recognition technology.

"The 511 itself is cheap," he said.

In addition, several Bay Area social service hot lines hope to be among the first to use 211 in the state, starting early next year. They include the Contra Costa Crisis Line, Eden I&R in Alameda County and Helplink, which covers San Francisco, Marin, Napa and Solano counties.

The exact timing of 211's launch depends on state regulators. The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to approve an application process to use 211 as early as January. The application process is necessary because only one agency can use any given three-digit number in a geographical area such as a city or county.

Assuming the rules aren't delayed or overly cumbersome, social service hot lines could start using the codes as early as the first quarter of 2003, predicts Burt Wallrich, the state's 211 coordinator.

Just how the 211 system will run will vary from location to location. In most cases, 211 calls will be routed to an existing call center, where a live operator will refer the caller to the appropriate social service agency.

Cost could be a hurdle for some agencies applying for 211. An industry group representing social service hot lines is still negotiating with telephone companies about the price to forward 211 calls to their call centers.

And depending on its success, social service hot lines may have to hire additional operators to handle the influx in calls. (Most of the major social service hot lines in the Bay Area are run by nonprofits, which depend on a mix of government funding and private donations.)

"It's very complicated to figure out the cost," said DeCray of Alameda I&R.

NONEMERGENCY CALLS

In addition, 311, which has been used for five years in San Jose to handle nonemergency police calls, is starting to catch on in other cities.

Los Angeles launched its own system on Sept. 16 to help ease the load on 911, which was jammed with non-urgent calls. Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill six weeks ago that endorsed 311 for use in other cities. And San Francisco is looking into using 311, at least on a limited basis, as early as next year.

"It's becoming bigger and bigger," said Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, D- Sherman Oaks (Los Angeles County), who authored the 311 bill. "You are going to see a sea change in California over the next couple years."

Still, money and inertia may discourage cities from embracing 311 right away, creating a patchwork where the code works in one area but not another.

Los Angeles, for instance, spent $5 million to implement 311. That's tiny compared with the city's $4.8 billion budget, but the figure may look daunting to politicians in other cities facing budget shortfalls.

Hertzberg initially proposed authorizing cities to tack on a 0.25 percent surcharge on phone bills to pay for the system but was forced to drop the charge to avoid a Davis veto. Davis, facing re-election, told him he wouldn't approve a tax increase.

Still, Hertzberg said the technology is becoming cheaper, making it affordable for most cities.

PHONE COMPANIES NOT EAGER

But the three-digit codes have drawbacks.

For one, some mobile phone companies are reluctant to spend the money to support them, rendering them useless for cell phone users.

"What is the incentive?" asked Michael Bagley, Verizon Wireless' director of public policy. "We don't have endless buckets of resources."

And unlike 911, the FCC didn't order mobile phone companies to support the codes.

Still, a San Francisco consumer advocate blasted Verizon and other wireless companies for refusing to support all the new three-digit numbers.

"The cellular industry is its own worst enemy," said Regina Costa, a telecommunications specialist with the San Francisco watchdog TURN, The Utility Reform Network. "They stalled on providing E-911 service (allowing emergency operators to locate mobile phone users), and here they are stalling in the provision of services that are very useful to the public."

Experts said some pay phone providers may also charge callers to dial the three-digit codes, even when they automatically route calls to toll-free hot lines. So, instead of dialing 211 to reach Helplink in San Francisco, for instance, callers may have to dial (800) 273-6222to avoid paying 50 cents.


Three-digit numbers at a glance

The three-digit codes (also known as N11 numbers) used around the country; the codes in use vary from city to city.

211: Community social services

311: Nonemergency police call and city services

411: Directory assistance

511: Traffic and transit information

611: Repair service

711: Telecom Relay Services (hearing/speech impaired)

811: Phone company customer service

911: Emergencies

211

First launched in the Atlanta metro area in 1997. The Federal Communications Commission reserved the number for other social service hot lines in 2000. Now used in portions of 18 states. The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to approve an application process to use the number in the Golden State as early as January.

Source: Alliance of Information and Referral Systems, Seattle

311

First used in Baltimore in 1996. San Jose became one of the first to follow in 1997. The FCC reserved the number for nonemergency calls to police and other government services. Cities and counties that run 911 systems can decide to use 311 on their own.

511

The FCC set aside the number for traffic information in 2000. First used in the Cincinnati area in June 2001. Now offered in at least seven states. Agencies must apply to the U.S. Transportation Department for approval to use the number. Source: Dispatch Monthly Magazine Web site / Source: U.S. Transportation Department

E-mail Todd Wallack at twallack@sfchronicle.com.



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