Everyone should know that in case of a medical, fire, or police emergency, calling 911 is one of the first things you should do. What many people don't know is that, in less dire circumstances, there are several other N-1-1 numbers that provide essential services, too!
The N-1-1 codes are part of the North American Numbering Plan, a protocol that informs the assignment of phone numbers across the continent. As part of this plan, the eight N-1-1 numbers are special short codes made to provide quick access to local services.
Many of these numbers are still pretty new — less than a decade old, in some cases — so most people still don't know about all of them. Unfortunately, the numbers don't point to consistent services between the US and Canada, so we'll only be looking at the US numbers in this post.
While these services are very widespread, coverage for them can vary by state and often more locally than that. Many of the websites linked below can help you discover if you have access to them in your area.
What it offers: A variety of health and human services, from debt, addiction, and employment counseling to programs for the young and elderly. In many places, this number is run by United Way, not by local government.
Call: To find out about home health care for an elderly family member.
Don't Call: If an elderly family member requires urgent medical attention. Call 911.
Learn more: 211US.org
What it offers: Non-emergency municipal services. In New York, it's famously the number to call if you want to make a noise complaint — and you'll usually get a follow-up email from the police department. (Whether that follow-up is satisfactory or not is another matter entirely.) Speaking of New York, the city happens to offer a 311 app for Android and iOS.
Other reasons to call can include municipal lost and found, property information, and removal of dead animals or debris from the highway.
Unfortunately, national availability is spotty. 311 is generally available in most large cities, but if you're in the suburbs, you may be out of luck.
Call: To complain about a car blasting loud music outside your apartment at 2 AM.
Don't Call: If you overhear a violent neighbor and think someone may be getting hurt. Call 911.
Learn more: Map of 311 services around the world
What it offers: Directory assistance. For instance, if you needed to know the address or phone number of a nearby hospital, 411 was historically the number you would call. Sadly, there's little good reason anymore: While the service used to be free of charge, it can now cost as much as $2 per minute. Google and Bing's free alternatives have been discontinued, and 1-800-FREE-411 (1-800-373-3411) does not appear to be reliable anymore.
Call: If you have a flip phone and desperately need to know the address of a local pizza joint.
Don't Call: If you have access to the internet in literally any possible way.
What it offers: Traffic and weather together. 511 can come in handy on long road trips, when you're wondering why there are miles of gridlock ahead of you and all you can find on the radio is world news. While the service is widespread, it's sadly not universal.
Call: If you're on the highway and want to know if weather conditions are going to worsen. (Have a passenger place the call if you're driving, of course.)
Don't Call: If you've just witnessed a horrific accident on the highway. Call 911.
What it offers: Customer service for your phone company, including mobile phone carriers. Not only is this call free, but on mobile phones, it usually won't count against your minutes, either.
Call: To ask about that mysterious charge on your phone bill.
Don't Call: To ask if the call is coming from inside the house. You could try 911, but it sounds like you're already in a horror movie. I'm sorry.
Learn more: dial611.com
What it offers: 711 facilitates phone calls between the deaf and people without hearing issues. If you're deaf, or you regularly converse with deaf people, this is an extremely valuable service; otherwise, you probably don't have any use for this one.
Learn more: fcc.gov
What it offers: Information about underground public facilities, such as electric lines, water pipes, and gas lines. Call them before you go digging in your yard, and they'll paint lines on your lawn indicating which utilities are where. They follow a universal color scheme:
- Red: Electric
- Orange: Communications, Telephone or Cable Television/Internet
- Blue: Potable Water
- Green: Sewer or Drainage
- Yellow: Gas or Petroleum Pipe Line
- Purple: Reclaimed Water
- White: Premark site of intended excavation
In some areas, calling 811 used to reroute you to 911, assuming that you were panicking during an emergency. This is no longer the case!
Call: If you need to dig on your property to plant a tree, install a fence, etc.
Don't Call: If you just want to know what utilities are located on your property. Only call if you want to dig.
Learn more: call811.com
These numbers exist for you to use them, so don't be shy! If anyone knows of other valuable shortcodes, whether in the US or other countries, please chime in!
Image by Vera Kratochvil