Thursday, March 28, 2019


Last week I posted a bunch of information about where to find road condition information in various states. Several of the websites had “511” in the name, and one of my friends asked why that particular number was used, so I thought I would explain that a bit.

Way back when rotary-dial phones were still in use, every phone call was routed through mechanical switches, and the clicks that the phone made as the dial returned to its rest position controlled the mechanical switches. Because of certain physical restraints and standards imposed by the monopoly that ran 98% of the phone systems, the first three digits of any phone number (the area code) couldn’t start with a 1 or 0 and the second number was always either 1 or 0. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stepped in and brokered an agreement with Canada for a uniform numbering system, the North American Numbering Plan (NANP), under which certain numbers were set aside for public service use. The first digits 0 and 1 were still reserved for operator-assisted and long-distance calls respectively, but with the NANP we got the ubiquitous 911 emergency number along with a few others that aren’t as well known.

When the phone systems in the US switched to all-digital equipment in the late 1990s, it opened up that second digit in the area code and made millions of more phone numbers possible just in time for the explosion of the cell phone market. The Internet and cell phones have obsoleted many of the N11 numbers, but they’re still in the regulations. Here are the numbers in use and how they are to be used.

Community services and referral information. If you are looking to contact the local Red Cross or some other health/human services organization, try this number. It’s only available if the local government or a non-profit organization runs it.

City services and/or non-emergency contact for police and fire departments. This is a handy way to report potholes and graffiti around your city without tying up a line to the emergency services dispatcher (which is considered illegal — at the least a misdemeanor — in many states anyway).

Directory assistance. This is a left-over from a time when phone books were still common It’s only useful for local numbers, and most of the large cell phone companies don’t publish their customer’s numbers, so this one is somewhat obsolete, although many people still have land lines in addition to cell phones and those land lines still get printed phone directories.

Road condition information (usually at the state level). Most states still offer an automated phone service if you call 511, giving the highlights of road closures and construction.

Customer service. This number is not specifically designated as such, but is so used by many phone companies. It is the number to call for a problem with telephone service, or to report an outage, etc. Most of us have experienced what the phone companies consider customer service, so this one is pretty useless, in my opinion.

TRS (Telephone Relay Service) and TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf), services for the deaf and blind. Paid for by the phone companies, TDD and TRS give the disabled a way to communicate in near real-time.

Before-You-Dig. This number was set aside for as a digger’s one-call system: before you dig into the soil anywhere, you’re supposed to call this number and the local utilities will send out a “locator” to find and mark any underground wires or pipes. Failure to use this normally free service has cost a lot of idiots a lot of money and caused some major headaches. “Bubba with a backhoe” is the derogatory term for someone who manages to pull up or cut into a buried phone line or gas pipe, causing a service outage that can vary from a neighborhood to a city, and (in the case of the gas) risk fire and/or explosion. I’ve seen some rather large outages in my time, up to and including the idiot who ruptured a high-pressure natural gas transfer pipe. That one took weeks to fix once the residual gas bled off (and was intentionally set on fire).

Emergency services. We’re all familiar with this one; if you need the police, fire department, or medical aid, you’ve been taught to dial 911. Cell phones are required by law to have GPS locators in them so the dispatchers can know where you are; land lines will show up with their version of caller ID, but phone-over-internet calls have created a hole in the system. The proposed authentication system for combating robo-callers may close this hole and shut off the “swatting” of people by spoofing their phone numbers.

I know this isn’t strictly prepper material, but I’m answering a legitimate question from a reader. We’re still dealing with flood waters in my area and it looks like we’ll be seeing them for several months. The snowpack upstream is just starting to melt and we’re expecting more rain, so the rivers will be full again this weekend. Unlike a hurricane or storm surge, our flooding tends to be long, drawn-out periods of miserable weather coupled with some of the most helpful people in the world.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Pastor Tim. This was interesting, and for us old guys, made sense. Many, many years ago, in my very small town in Michigan, of about 800 people, to dial someone in town, you only had to dial the last 4 digits of the number. I still remember the day I came home from school and they had changed it to where you had to dial the 3 number prefix. Boy, were some of the townsfolk mad!
    You really must live in a small town in the 60's to understand just how they used to act and think. The term is small minded. Surprisingly, even though we only had one or two black families in town, there was not a huge amount of bigotry, at least as far as I remember, for a young person. Of course, my parents were exceptionally outgoing and friendly with members of all races, and so that might have hidden some of it from me, but I don't recall on the playground or the streets, or in the stores etc. any people acting unkindly towards black families, or Mexican American families either. I guess when you are living in a small village in Michigan in the 60's, everyone is in the same boat, with LBJ at the helm, and an unpopular war in SE Asia.


The Fine Print

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Creative Commons License

Erin Palette is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to