TODAY in HISTORY: The First 9-1-1 Emergency Call System

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by William “Doc” Halliday

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”  That is the standard response when you call that emergency number.  Have you ever called to report an emergency?  I certainly have. 

As of January 2017, the United States has 5,874 primary and secondary Public Safety Answering Points, better known as PSAPs, in 3,135 counties, which include parishes, independent cities, boroughs, and Census areas.

There is an estimated 240 million calls made to 9-1-1 each year.  Over 99% of the United States population has at least basic 9-1-1 coverage.  Enhanced 9-1-1 coverage extends to 93% and provides the location of the caller automatically.  But that wasn’t always the case. 

Two hundred years ago you would personally go to the nearest law enforcement office in order to obtain help.  Sometimes this was a day’s travel away.  One-hundred and fifty years ago you could send a telegram if there was a telegraph office that was between you and the nearest law enforcement.   One-hundred years ago if you had a telephone, you could utilize that device and ask the operator to connect you with the police or sheriff. 

From the beginning uses of telephones, an individual would be connected to a live operator who would connect you with the appropriate authority when you needed the police, fire department, or medical assistance.  In 1879 there was a measles epidemic in Lowell, Massachusetts.  A physician in that city became concerned that all four of the city’s telephone operators might be stricken by the disease.  He suggested a system of assigning numbers instead of the names that were then used so that replacements could operate the system easily.  The system of numbering the connections spread even faster than the epidemic. 

Forty-nine years ago, on February 16, 1968 the first 9-1-1 emergency telephone system went into service in Haleyville, AL. 

Initially the telephone numbers were three digits or less.  When I was a child my parent’s telephone number was five digits (29-669), and was shared with another party, making it a party line. When the system expanded we were given a prefix of JEfferson (53).  Over the years the full number became 532-9669.  In 1947 the North American Numbering Plan was developed.  This system divided the service territories into Numbering Plan Areas and called the numeric prefix the Area Code.  The Area Code for Western Massachusetts was established as 413, making my parents complete telephone number 413-532-XXXX. 

Fifty years ago you could dial the police or sheriff directly, after you looked up the number.  It seemed that automation of the telephone system slowed the response from authorities in an emergency.  In 1957 the National Association of Fire Chiefs proposed that a single number be used for reporting fires.  In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended that a single number be created that could be used throughout the United States for reporting all emergencies. 

In November of 1967, the Federal Communications Commission met with AT&T in order to determine which number would be used.  In January of 1968, the number 9-1-1 was selected to be used.  The number was simple, easy to remember, dialed easily, and worked well with the phone systems in place during that time period.  My youngest readers may not remember rotary dialed telephones but the zero required more effort and movement than the other digits.  However, the zero was used to reach an operator, so it was not available for use.  The one (1) required the least effort and movement but was used for long-distance calls.  By using the nine (9) first, it meant that the call would be deliberate, and the subsequent ones (1-1) made the remainder of the dialing very easy. 

Forty-nine years ago, on February 16, 1968 the first 9-1-1 emergency telephone system went into service in Haleyville, AL.  The actual phone used to answer the first 9-1-1 call, a bright red model, is now in a museum in Haleyville.  A duplicate phone is still in use at the police station in that city. 

9-1-1 became the national emergency number for the United States. Dialing this number provided a caller access to any emergency service.  The number did not become widely known until the 1970s, and many municipalities did not have 9-1-1 service until the following decade. 

William “Doc” Halliday, historian and writer, can be contacted at w_halliday@yahoo.com .

William "Doc" Halliday

Historian, Political Commentator

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