Just as 911 is successfully ingrained into the public mind as the number to call in an emergency, New Orleans-area social services groups hope that 211 will soon ring a bell for everyone in need of their assistance.

Designated in 1997 by the FCC as a nation-wide number for social service information and referral, 211 has been locally operational since late June. It was established in southeast Louisiana with VIA LINK, the nonprofit United Way-member agency responsible for coordinating area community support agencies. Efforts are now beginning to promote the number and establish a phone system at VIA LINK capable of handling the expected increase in calls into the toll-free, 24-hour service. Officials hope to reach full-operational status by late January. Callers will be helped with issues ranging from substance abuse to domestic violence, hate crimes to suicide prevention.

Says Marilyn Schraberg, VIA LINK's director of crisis and information services, "211's purpose is to provide the community with easy access to community services. The public deserves to have access to this info, and 211 will provide it. It's one-stop shopping for social services, like what 911 is for emergency services."

Louisiana Public Service Commission -- serving Orleans, Jefferson, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, St. Bernard, St. Tammany and Plaquemines parishes -- gave VIA LINK the license to operate 211 for southeast Louisiana. The Lafayette area also has a 211 service, and a license has been granted for Baton Rouge, though operation has not yet begun. The VIA LINK program follows models in other cities and states, such as Atlanta, where a 211 call center assists and estimated 300,000 callers annually.

VIA LINK has for several years operated the similar Cope Line, which receives roughly 70,000 calls a year. The heavy volume on the existing phone system limits counselors to fielding only 80 percent of all calls, says VIA LINK CEO Marguerite Redwine. The new phone system being created for 211, dubbed a Customer Interaction Center (CIC), will allow for the 211 goal of handling 145,000 calls a year. The CIC system will route calls in order of severity to the appropriate counselor, and has the capacity of providing information in 152 languages, with Spanish and Portuguese translators immediately available. Redwine states the CIC system will cost $175,000, with the overall 211 operation requiring a budget of $200,000 a year.

The majority of the expense is staff salaries, Redwine says, adding that the current number of 30 paid employees and unpaid volunteers is expected to climb to 60 -- all of whom must receive 60 hours of training. As it has done in other areas, BellSouth lowered a call tariff to make the program feasible.

VIA LINK receives no government funding for 211, relying on the United Way of Greater New Orleans and St. Charles Parish, as well as UNITY for the Homeless, and various grants, contracts, donations and support from foundations. Redwine says that a limited budget has prevented VIA LINK from advertising the number, and adds that the number will, at least initially, be accessible only to BellSouth phone lines. It would be "extremely difficult" to convince the myriad cellular companies to provide the 211 service for free, Redwine says.

Despite such snags, optimism for 211's potential at VIA LINK runs high. "211 is a powerful use of technology; it's a natural extension of the power of community," Schraberg says. "It's critical the people of New Orleans have this service."