September 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 5 // Ideas at Work // 5IAW3

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Answer Line


Mary Jo Williams
Home Economics Program Assistant
Iowa State University - Ames

How do I cook tiger meat? Can a freezer that no longer works be used as a big ice chest? How can duck eggs be hatched using an electric skillet?

Since 1975, Iowa residents have called Answer Line, a toll-free number, to find answers to these and more conventional home economics questions.

The Answer Line office, located on the Iowa State University campus, has grown from a six-month pilot program. It was designed to help county home economists answer their routine daily calls, thus giving them more time for program development to an ongoing Extension program. Clients are still referred by county offices, but the service has developed its own clientele. For many callers, their use of Answer Line is their first contact with Extension.

Clients talk with a home economist who may respond to their request in one of three ways: answer the question immediately, return the call after researching the request, or send printed information. Extension publications, textbooks, professional journals, and campus specialists in a variety of fields serve as part of the resources used to answer questions.

Answer Line's clientele has grown from 1 calI the first day of service, March, 1975, to as many as 250 calls on the busiest of days. Since its beginning, almost 188,000 requests have been received.

A publicity campaign wasn't launched to advertise this new service; rather, the county home economists were asked to publicize the telephone number in any way they saw fit. It was done primarily through newspaper columns, radio programs, and county newsletters. We still rely on this advertising to keep the telephone lines ringing.

Because the daily number of calls continues to increase, particularly in the summer months, the service has had to make a few changes.

The first was to expand for the summer months by adding a second telephone line and having two fulltime home economists. The second change was to add a computer. The information stored on computer disks was selected based on frequency of use and on the information itself - how detailed it is and how difficult it is to find. The information is grouped by subject (food preservation or stain removal) and isn't, in most cases, cross-referenced.

After the Answer Line home economists decided what to record on the disks, sources were checked, information was written, and then approved by the state specialists. The system was tested during the summer of 1983.

Computerizing many of the files has made it easier to find accurate answers quickly. It also allows for more consistent answers. This is especially important when more than one staff member is answering questions. Also, the computer's printing capabiIities make it easier to send information quickly.

Several county home economists requested we make our computer files available to them. At present, 90% of Iowa county Extension offices have computers and the first copies of the Answer Line computer files have been sent to county home economists.

Plans are to update the disks twice yearly or as needed. This project is totally voluntary for the home economists. Their cost is to purchase the eight floppy disks.

"Answer Line was never intended to replace the county home economists, but rather to serve as a support for them," says Janet Sigmund, Answer Line home economist. "We have always tried to provide the home economists with information that will help them answer their daily requests. The computer disks are another source at their disposal."