Rescue 211

Arizona's 211 system will take the burden off 911.

by / January 4, 2005
Arizona is poised to become the fifth state in the country -- after Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho and Minnesota -- to create a statewide 211 phone number for quick access to homeland security data and alerts, and health and other social services information.

The first phase of the 211 system is scheduled to premiere April 1, Arizona officials said, as a Web site populated by a statewide database drawn from public and private programs, such as social service providers, charitable organizations and emergency response information.

The site will be administered by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, and will prominently feature 1-800 numbers so state residents who want to speak with someone will have a place to go until the regular three-digit dialing goes live later in the year.

Development of 211 systems is occurring throughout the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but most are citywide or countywide systems.

"It's kind of unique in that we're talking about a statewide system," said Arizona CIO Chris Cummiskey. "Most of the 211 systems are localized or regionalized. We're trying to accomplish a statewide, three-digit dialing -- as well as Web-based access -- system, which would provide all citizens up-to-date information germane to them on a wide variety of health and human service, nonprofit and services issues."

In her 2004 state of the state address, Gov. Janet Napolitano said the 211 system is part of a "web of readiness" to keep state residents prepared for emergencies. As part of that role, one 211 system component will push messages to citizens in the event of a homeland security or natural disaster, Cummiskey said.

"We're looking to utilize it for alerting, not only on a statewide basis, but also on a regionalized approach," he explained, citing wildfire alerts targeting specific areas during the state's fire season as one example of the role the 211 system will play.

The dual approach -- homeland security, and health and human services -- is unusual among 211 systems, according to Cummiskey.

"We're finding that there aren't as many [jurisdictions] doing both as equal rails of this, so we're charting new territory in that respect," he said. "We looked at some good models around the country, and we think we're taking from the best of all that exist."

One key example is Connecticut, which used its 211 system in the days following Sept. 11 to help families find victims and get mental health services. The system was also used to coordinate volunteers calling in to donate blood.

"They were using it more as a health and human services vehicle before Sept. 11," Cummiskey said.

Homeland Security Link
The system will provide a link between Arizona citizens and the state's homeland security office, and systems such as Amber Alert.

"We're trying to tie in our alert systems with Amber Alert and others that may exist, such as in the bio-terrorism realm, so when something occurs, you've got all these things linked together, the protocols are already in place and we know what we're doing," Cummiskey said. "We're trying to maximize the power of those networks rather than being duplicative."

Part of that effort is to pull existing disparate databases together by populating one 211 database that can be accessed for information by call center personnel, caseworkers or else anyone who needs data.

Arizona currently has a series of 1-800 numbers and informational Web sites from which citizens can get social services information. Channeling all that data, including thousands of phone numbers, and information on services and programs, into a single database will be a "massive undertaking," Cummiskey said, because the state is dealing with a range of differing organizations.

Maricopa County's Community Information and Referral service, for example, handles more than 300,000 calls a year and has a database with 9,000 programs. The Phoenix call center has 15 staff members who answer calls around the clock.

"We're trying not to reinvent the wheel," Cummiskey said. "We recognize it's going to be an ongoing process. We intend to hire local companies in Phoenix and Tucson to not only maintain the data we have, but also find ways to augment it."

State officials said regional call centers will probably be built to cover rural areas, and the 211 system will be tied to those call centers using VoIP technology. The state is targeting mid-2005 for completion of the call centers.

"Call centers will be established in Phoenix and around the state in a way that allows folks to dial the three-digit number, get connected to the call center with an AIRS [Alliance of Information and Referral Systems] compliance operator and have information offered at that point," Cummiskey said.

AIRS offers a professional umbrella for public and private organizations, and aims to improve access to services through information and referral.

Permanent funding will have to be secured from a combination of private, public and federal dollars. An initial investment of $600,000, which the state secured from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was used to get the project under way.

Communitywide Involvement
In early 2004, Napolitano created the Governor's Council on 2-1-1, which Cummiskey chairs, consisting of state agency directors who make policy decisions regarding the system. The governor also created an advisory committee of stakeholders from local government and the private sector, including organizations such as the Salvation Army and United Way.

"The governor recognized that it doesn't make sense to just have a bunch of agency heads talking about this," Cummiskey said. "You really need to make sure you involve the community from around the state."

Officials expect the 211 system to greatly reduce the burden on overwhelmed 911 dispatchers. Some cities have reported that 50 percent to 90 percent of calls to their 911 systems could be handled by a 211 system. The reduced load on 911 will make it more effective by creating a healthier, more productive work force, officials say.

The 211 system also will provide an avenue for emergency situations where calling 911 would be inappropriate. For instance, dialing 211 is a viable option for a family evicted from its home in 115-degree heat or a family that lost its home to a wildfire, when calling 911 in those instances might not provide immediate help.

As part of its focus on crisis management, the system will be used to simplify coordination of volunteers and donations.

"Whether it's donations or diapers or food, there has to be a way to direct those kinds of efforts," Cummiskey said. "That's what 211 is seeking to do: get in the arena of directing people's generosity so that it's maximized."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor