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

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor