2-1-1 is a special abbreviated telephone number reserved in Canada and the United States as an easy-to-remember three-digit telephone number meant to provide information and referrals to health, human and social service organizations.
For many years New York Telephone (now a unit of Verizon) used 2-1-1 as an automated credit request number for disconnected or mis-dialed calls. This service was in service from the 1970s through the early 2000s.
From many larger cities, the long-distance operator was reached by dialing 2-1-1 in order to place a long-distance call.
United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta was the first to introduce a 2-1-1 service in 1997. Many states began implementation plans soon after, aided by the United Way of America in partnership with the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems. On July 20, 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved 2-1-1 for nation-wide use as a short number in the United States along with 5-1-1. In Texas, particularly in the Coastal Bend area, 2-1-1 is also the number to call for elderly and handicapped people needing evacuation assistance in the event of a pending disaster such as a hurricane.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) approved the use of 2-1-1 throughout Canada on August 9, 2001. The first Canadian 2-1-1 service opened in Toronto on June 13, 2002. 2-1-1 services are free of charge and multilingual in Canada.
2-1-1 center hours vary. Many are open 24/7 to refer callers to organizations that provide services in such areas as:
- Addiction counseling
- Affordable housing
- Alzheimer's assistance
- Child care
- Debt counseling
- Disaster relief
- Donation opportunities
- Emergency food, such as food banks and soup kitchens
- Financial assistance
- Homeless services
- Job counseling
- Parenting programs
- Psychotherapy counseling
- Senior citizen programs
- Suicide prevention
- Telephone reassurance, care for the elderly
- Volunteer opportunities
- Youth programs
Where available, 2-1-1 is operated by a private non-profit community-service organization, local government or local affiliates of the national organization of the United Way of America. 2-1-1 provides information and referral to callers on where to obtain assistance from local and national social service programs, local and national governmental agencies and local and national non-profit organizations as well as where to volunteer or make a donation locally. Referrals are often given from databases accessed by call specialists. These databases could be housed off site or on site, are often regional, and linked to a specific brand of software used to access and edit database records. To ensure the most up to date referrals are given to callers information in the database should not be older than one year.
Many 2-1-1 centers are exploring Memorandums of Understanding with state and federal governments to facilitate the efficient handling of future disasters. Television or Radio stations could easily tell citizens to call 2-1-1 in the event of an emergency. Call specialist at these centers would be informed of current disaster plans or place to receive help and could then inform the public of the correct course of action. Recently in Florida, Texas, Arizona, Massachusetts, Iowa, and the Gulf Coast region, 2-1-1 centers were instrumental in coordinating with local government officials and providing information to communities before and after local disasters.
As of October 2011, the service is available in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.. 38 states have complete 2-1-1 coverage, and it is available in Puerto Rico. In Northern California, 2-1-1 was instituted throughout most of the San Francisco Bay Area.
In August 2011, 2-1-1 California announced that it had selected a new technology platform with which to provide 2-1-1 service to  93 percent of the state's population.
In Canada, 2-1-1 is available in the following communities (with starting date):
- Algoma District (September 2010)
- Bruce County (February 2009)
- Calgary (2005)
- Edmonton (2004)
- Fraser Valley (October 2010), including Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Mission, Hope, Kent and Harrison Hot Springs
- Frontenac County (June 2010)
- Grey County (February 2009)
- Halton Region (2007)
- Haliburton County (September 2009)
- Huron County (June 2010)
- Kawartha Lakes (September 2009)
- Kingston (June 2010)
- Lennox and Addington County (June 2010)
- London (October 2011)
- Muskoka District (November 2008)
- Niagara Region (November 2005)
- Northumberland County (May 2009)
- Nova Scotia (February 11, 2013)
- Ottawa (September 19, 2008) 
- Oxford County (September 2010)
- Peel Region (May 2008)
- Perth County (June 2010)
- Peterborough County (June 2009)
- Québec City (Capitale-Nationale et Chaudière-Appalaches) (April 2008)
- Renfrew County (February 2011)
- Saskatchewan (September 2013, web-only)
- Sault Ste. Marie (September 2009)
- Simcoe County (November 2005)
- Squamish-Lillooet (October 2011), including Squamish, Whistler, Lillooet and Pemberton
- Thunder Bay (February 2008)
- Toronto (June 2002)
- Waterloo region (May 2011)
- (Metro) Vancouver (October 2010), including Anmore, Belcarra, Bowen Island, Burnaby, Coquitlam, Delta, Langley, Lions Bay, Maple Ridge, New Westminster, North Vancouver, Pitt Meadows, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Richmond, Surrey, West Vancouver and White Rock.
- Windsor-Essex County (November 2007)
The Windsor Star has reported on March 20, 2003 that Windsor, Ontario intended to have a 2-1-1 service up by 2009, as the Provincial Government allocated $311,000 to start it up, with much of the money being donated by the United Way of Canada, but had a set time limit on how long those funds would be available. On November 26, 2007, the City of Windsor's website announced that 2-1-1 service for Windsor and Essex County began, and was being run by the United Way (who also runs the local 3-1-1 service).
Plans to introduce 2-1-1 services are also in development in other Canadian communities. Ontario extended 2-1-1 province-wide in 2012 and Nova Scotia's province-wide 2-1-1 deployment will be fully operational in 2014. In British Columbia, 2-1-1 services are administered by bc211, and is available in Metro Vancouver, Squamish-Lillooet and Fraser Valley regional districts, with plans to expand the services provincially.
In some communities, unused X-1-1 codes were assigned as plant test numbers for telephone installers testing individual lines. In the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, for instance, when 2-1-1 was dialed it caused a busy signal to occur and the dialer's telephone line would "go dead" for several minutes afterward. These codes must first be "recovered" by moving the test functions elsewhere (958 and 959 are standard reserved local and long-distance test exchanges in most areas) to permit redeployment as local public information numbers.
The American accrediting body for 2-1-1 centers is the Alliance of Information & Referral Systems (AIRS). AIRS provides an in-depth accreditation process for 2-1-1 centers. AIRS also certifies 2-1-1 Call Center Representatives as Certified Information and Referral Specialists (CIRS), Certified Information and Referral Specialists for Aging (CIRS-A) and Certified Resource Specialists (CRS) annually. AIRS standards have been created to provide a benchmark for 2-1-1 centers and its staff. The standards regulate nationally how a 2-1-1 centers provides services and how they collect and store information.
INFOLINE of Los Angeles, an information and referral services agency serving the greater Los Angeles area, developed a national taxonomy of human services that provides a standard language for information and referral providers nationally. AIRS adopted this taxonomy as its national standard for use in the field of information and referral. This taxonomy provides standard definition of terms, an exact coding structure for referrals and search methodology for providing referrals to consumers. More information about the AIRS/Infoline Taxonomy of Human Services can be found at www.211taxonomy.org.
Accredited 2-1-1 centers must have active Memorandums of Understanding with local 9-1-1 service as well as domestic violence providers, elder care providers, mental health providers and local law enforcement to name a few.
Work is underway to create a bilingual, Canadian Taxonomy of human services based on the AIRS/Infoline Taxonomy. This project is led by InformCanada and significant steps have been made on the creation of a starter taxonomy by the 211 Ontario phase 2 project, funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the government of Canada. Updates on the Canadian Taxonomy Project are maintained by 211.ca.
The process of implementing 2-1-1
The number 2-1-1 must be captured and approved for assigning through the local telecom companies providing services in the local area. The process of implementing a 2-1-1 service in a community has taken many paths since its beginning in 1997. Some places have a centralized state-wide system while others have decentralized regional networks with different types of affiliations.
In the United States, each implementation is monitored by the national accrediting entity Alliance of Information & Referral Systems (AIRS) and its local statewide affiliate.
In Canada, the deployment of 2-1-1 service is subject to InformCanada accreditation and Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) approval.
- UIS Technology Partners to install 211 24/7 Emergency Response in Bay Area
- "2-1-1 California strengthens disaster response support capabilities". Retrieved 17 November 2013.
- "2-1-1 info line set to start". Ottawa Citizen. September 18, 2008. Retrieved September 18, 2008.
- 3-Digit Numbers Used in New York City