The 411 on 211

Posted by on December 6, 2011 at 11:42 pm.

It’s common knowledge that, in North America, you dial 911 in an emergency. It’s a good thing—we can all be comforted by that shorthand that makes it so easy to access urgent care.

But not all emergencies call for a paramedic or police officer. A crisis can happen in a person’s family, work life or community, and suddenly there’s a mire of numbers to wade through to find the right service.

In 1997, the United Way of Atlanta, Georgia, came up with a solution to those social emergencies by twinning 911 with 211, a live, volunteer-operated community database of services for everything from health to legal advice to immigrant services.

The service works like 911: dial the number, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, explain your emergency, and the operator, a volunteer who is familiar with the services in your area, will find the help you need.

It’s a way to keep the social services sector working properly, and it takes a burden off 911 traffic, as some 911 callers could be helped instead by 211.

In Ontario, an initiative started in 2002 to get a 211 service up and running. In 2006, the provincial government gave the United Way $1.4 million to start the phone service, and an additional $3 million to start the website:


By 2008, more than 50 per cent of Ontarians had access to the 211 service. The Ontario government pledged another $13 million over four years to complete building the service until it’s available to all Ontarians, then $4 million annually to keep the service running.

In that time 211 has developed a database of 56,000 services available in Ontario.

This is the last of those four years and 211 is now advertised and available in most of the province. By the end of the year, the service should be available to everyone in Ontario. In eastern Ontario, there are only four counties left that have not officially begun receiving 211 service: the united counties of Russell & Prescott; Hastings County; and Prince Edward County.

Last week Bill Morris, executive director of Ontario’s 211 services corporation, presented the service to the Committee of the Whole, and asked for approval and financial support.

The model, said Morris, relied on 60 per cent of its funding from the provincial government, 10 per cent support each from the federal government and from United Way, and 20 per cent from municipalities.

Morris also said that the service already exists in the County. If you pick up a phone and dial 211 you will get an operator able to help you find local services. The service corporation is using a soft launch approach, meaning the service will be advertised after it’s available. 211 is set to launch in the County officially in November.

Although councillors seemed to agree with the idea of the 211 service, they did not seem impressed that an initiative that had been in the works for nearly 10 years, and that expected municipal support, was only coming to their attention weeks before being implemented. Councillor Bev Campbell wanted to know what body would be responsible for making decisions about funding. She also wanted to know when council could know what figure the service would expect from the County, and if council would have any say.

Morris declined to answer those questions in a concrete way, saying the service was important, but that he was charged with implementing it and did not want to get into the politics of shared provincial and municipal finances.

Without word on how much money they would have to spend, council received Morris’s presentation before proceeding with County business.

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