From three numbers, hundreds of answers

States are fast adopting three-digit numbers that offer everything from traffic reports to bingo-night schedules.

Pop quiz: What three-digit number would you call to report a stolen car? To figure out why your car is stuck in traffic? To donate your car to charity?

Your city may soon have separate, three-digit dialing codes that make everything from reporting emergencies to dealing with daily challenges as easy as 123. Make that 211, 311, or 511.

So-called "N11" numbers - referred to as national assets because of their ease of use and potential for public benefit - are spreading almost as fast as new area codes.

Dial 311 for nonemergency police matters. A dozen cities as large as Chicago and as small as Bethel, Alaska, have adopted it since its inception in 1997. Houston rolled out its system in August. Sometimes promoted as "Your Call to City Hall," 311 is probably the best known of the bunch, but cost and technological hurdles keep it from being the most widely used.

Do you want to be a volunteer in your hometown? Or find out about recreational opportunities for the elderly? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved 211 last summer as a convenient way to access local social services. Parts of Connecticut, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Louisiana, have it online, and seven other states plan to make it available by the end of the year.

Honk if you've heard of 511. The FCC gave it the nod in 2000 as the three-digit solution to navigating rush-hour detours and interstate travel. The greater Cincinnati area was the first to apply 511 in June. It is being readied for deployment in the San Francisco Bay Area, Arizona, Utah, and Minnesota.

Using 711 provides speedy access to special operators who convert calls to text messages for the hearing-impaired. Unlike 211, 311, and 511, 711 is FCC-mandated - the deadline for nationwide compliance is October 1.

Local phone companies traditionally have used the remaining numbers, 611 and 811, for repair service and business office use, respectively. Neither appears headed for official designation any time soon. (Because "0" and "1" are used for switching and call-routing, 011 and 111 are not available.)

Proponents claim that N11s are not only spreading geographically, but in their functions as well. For example, 311 was intended to relieve 911 of nonemergency calls, such as a report that a next-door teen is blasting his stereo.

Instead, in most locales, "it is now being used to provide access to almost all city or county services in that area, not just those which are police-related," says Ralph Gould, who handles 911 services for the Grand Rapids, Mich., police department. That includes reports of things like a burned-out street lamp or a no-show snowplow. Mr. Gould says that "311 has evolved into something significantly larger than its original purpose."

For N11 proponents, the advantages are clear. In the case of 511, drivers can access a menu that might offer anything from current road conditions to future paving schedules - roughly 10 times more data than a radio-traffic report provides, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT). Comparing three- and seven-digit traveler-information services in the Cincinnati area, DOT found that the shorter number received 72 percent more calls. The result, potentially, is better traffic flow and reduced gas consumption and emissions.

Still, the FCC has merely designated 211, 311, and 511 for particular services. Implementation is voluntary and left to states and metropolitan areas. Bureaucratic wrangling and cost will likely keep them from matching 911's ubiquitousness for many years. In the meantime, the numbers are often used locally for other purposes.

For years, in northern Florida, 311 accessed a dating service.

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