Officials in the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) want the state to team with neighboring Gulf Coast states to create a regional 211 information and referral system.

If the project materializes, participating states -- such as Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Florida -- would interconnect their 211 call centers and train their phone representatives to serve citizens living in those partnering states.

Alabama, Georgia and Florida are still implementing their own 211 systems, which must be completed before they consider a regional system, according to Judy Windler, Texas DIR special projects director. The DIR, she said, has only had preliminary discussions about a regional system with Louisiana, whose system is complete, as is Mississippi's.

Give Me the 211

Several states have implemented 211 information and referral systems -- which offer citizens one number to call for information about health and human services in their area -- and many more are developing them. The 211 Texas Information and Referral Network program promises to deliver data on any benefits publicly or privately funded in a caller's area, said 211 Program Manager Beth Wick.

Texas' recently implemented 211 system is powered by voice over Internet protocol technology, and is widely viewed as a model for other states, said Mary Hogan, vice president of the United Way of Connecticut and former board president of the Alliance for Information and Referral Systems (AIRS).

Officials say the 211 system proved its worth during hurricanes Katrina and Rita -- it made directing the influx of Louisiana evacuees to health and human services dramatically easier, and let Texas effectively disperse the onslaught of frantic calls among its 25 call centers and avoid shutdowns.

Although the 211 system is beneficial, its referral process still needs improvement, Wick said. Disaster management is an ongoing reality of living on the Gulf Coast, she said, which means Texas and its neighbors should be instantly ready to transfer their 211 calling needs to call centers in other states where phone operators are trained to advise citizens during a crisis. "We had a tremendous amount of people who evacuated from Louisiana into Texas, [but] we didn't have any connectivity with Louisiana 211," Wick said. "We didn't know what sort of resources they might have had available to them, yet we were having to serve a lot of their people."

People stranded on rooftops in Louisiana called the Texas 211 system, as did those looking for family members, food, shelter, medicine and medical care. "You need to have people trained to handle that type of call," Wick said. "If the states were interconnected, that training is already available. If we have other storms this year, Texans may go to another state, and because we don't have connectivity with, say, Oklahoma or Louisiana, there's a gap there where we can't help them and they can't help us in the way we could if we were tied together."

Texas 211 phone operators reference a database to find any benefits available in a caller's area. If the Gulf Coast implements a regional system, participating states would feed their data into each other's databases for emergencies. States would still serve their own citizens during normal conditions.

Texas' 211 call volume increased by 300 percent during September 2005 -- a leap from its normal 80,000 calls per month to 267,000 calls. Costs rose by $1 million alone during September, Wick said.

"We ended up having to quickly bring up another center and try to staff it with state staff, and then extend everybody's hours," she said. "Everybody was working 12 hours or more."

A regional system's call dispersing capabilities would save states from hiring temporary phone operators during emergencies, keeping 211 referral assistance in the hands of nationally certified phone operators who provide that assistance for a living, she said. "In a time of disaster, they'd put their normal crisis hat aside -- helping people who

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.