Dialing 911 summons emergency help. And 411 brings directory assistance. Now an army of nonprofit groups and government officials is trying to establish 211 as a multi-jurisdictional hotline for information and referrals to social services and medical assistance in the Washington region.

Such a unified system would replace scores of unconnected telephone referral services that can confuse the public, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute.

It also would strengthen the region's preparedness for a terrorist attack or a public health emergency, such as an anthrax outbreak, by giving the public a single, easy-to-remember number to obtain updated information or offer help to victims, the study said.

To thousands of public and private agencies that support regional 211 systems, that conclusion has been obvious for years. The Federal Communications Commission has set aside 211 for that purpose and systems are being launched steadily, but most of the nation remains without the service.

Some observers say the Washington area, with a raft of area codes, thousands of nonprofit groups and divergent governmental philosophies, presents a major challenge to building a coordinated service.

For starters, hundreds of toll-free and local phone help lines are already operating -- some with broad-based goals; many others offer access only to a narrow menu of services.

"This marketplace is one of the most challenging in the country," said Brian A. Gallagher, president of the United Way of America.

"Nobody knows quite how this is all going to end up," said Tylee Smith of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, an intergovernmental group. But many of those involved say they are determined to make it work.

"It's a personal quest to make sure we have these systems in place as soon as possible," said Martina A. Martin, an official with the United Way of Central Maryland and the state's 211 project director.

"From the consumer standpoint, the number of referral providers and toll-free 800 numbers is overwhelming," she said. "People need something simple, like 211, that they can access 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- in multiple languages if necessary."

The regional 211 system, which some say could be launched by the end of 2004, would be particularly useful for anyone with difficulty finding services, such as immigrants. National standards set by a private accreditation group call for multilingual information and referral specialists.

In the Brookings-Urban Institute study, researchers reviewed the experiences of thousands of laid-off hotel workers after the Sept. 11 attacks and found that even when social service agencies were doing a good job making housing, food and other assistance available, many displaced workers couldn't figure out how to get them.

Pat Atkins, a George Washington University professor surveying telephone information and referral services across the region for a nonprofit group, said a rational 211 system would have an immediate effect.

"I think it will enable people to get assistance before they decide to give up," she said. With the existing system, "the first number they dial may be an agency that doesn't have the services they want. Then they are given another number, and then another, and then they get busy and it's months before they get back for the help -- or maybe they never get back."

The United Way's Martin and colleagues from other referral services in Maryland, Virginia and the District have begun informal meetings to coordinate their varying approaches and decide how to create a seamless system. For example, they hope that a caller from Virginia could be referred to a District agency if it would be of more help, or a Marylander could be given the phone number for an agency in a neighboring county that would be more appropriate.

"They have begun talking to each other," said Chuck Bean, executive director of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington. "If they don't cooperate, we'll end up with three distinct 211 call centers and three distinct systems. For example, if you live in Takoma Park and call Maryland 211, that would be without access to D.C. nonprofits, and you might be missing the best match to a nonprofit organization a short bus or Metro ride away . . . . This is an issue that's coming on the radar screen."

Bean and Martin are part of a national movement that jelled in 1998, when the United Way of America and the Alliance of Information and Referral Services petitioned the FCC to reserve 211. Opposition was scant, and in 2000 the FCC granted the petition. The commission left it to the 50 states and the District to designate who should operate 211 services in their own areas.

Now 11 percent of the nation's population in 17 states is served by 211, Gallagher said. The United Way is shooting for 20 percent by the end of the year and 50 percent by 2005.

But the services require a strong public-private partnership, and officials are hoping to tap into preparedness funds made available in the past year by Congress and into streams of state money that can be combined in some way to create a regional network.

"We hope to bend those streams so that, from the perspective of residents who will use it, it acts, functions and feels like a unified 211 system," Bean said. Experts estimate the cost of such a system at $1 to $1.50 per capita for the region. In the Washington area, with 4.6 million residents, that could run from $4.6 million to $6.9 million per year.

Officials say new telephone technologies could link a series of call centers into one seamless "front door" for 211 callers, with automated call transfers and subsequent human transfers. The possible solutions are limitless -- as long as political consensus is achieved. "It's going to take technology, goodwill and hard work," Smith said.

Martha Ross of the Brookings Institution said a 211 system would also help spot new problems.

"It can be used to track needs as they are emerging," she said. "In Atlanta, they got an upsurge in calls for electricity and utility assistance."

Local officials raised extra funds to provide emergency help covering those bills, she said.

"It was an early-warning system," Ross said. "If they didn't have that kind of centralized system, they would not have picked up on it."