Celebrating 50 Years of 9-1-1
The number 9-1-1 was chosen primarily because those three consecutive numbers were not in use within the U.S. phone systems as a prefix or area code
By Randall Larson, Editor, 911 Magazine
This article is reprinted with permission from 911 Magazine.
The 50th anniversary of 9-1-1 takes place on February 16, 2018.
It was on that date that – 35 days after AT&T implemented the emergency call number – Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite picked up a telephone at 2 p.m. in the Haleyville, Alabama, police station, and dialed 9-1-1.
Moments later, Alabama Congressman Tom Bevill answered a phone elsewhere in the station – reportedly with a simple “Hello” – and the United States’ 9-1-1 system was officially inaugurated.
It wasn’t the world’s first universal emergency number – the United Kingdom had implemented a 9-9-9 numerical code as early as 1936, which is officially the world’s oldest emergency call number. That number is still in use in the UK and various other European, African and Asian countries.
The European Economic Community (created in 1957) established 1-1-2 as the emergency number code in 1991 for its members; in 1993 when the EEC incorporated and became the modern European Union (EU) they carried over 1-1-2 for most of its member nations. While 999 remains the official emergency number for the United Kingdom – Brexit notwithstanding – calls are also accepted on the EU’s 1-1-2 number (all 1-1-2 calls placed within the UK are answered by 999 operators).
In 1961, Australia introduced its emergency number, 0-0-0, for major population centers, extending its coverage to nationwide in the 1980s.
The city of Winnipeg, Canada, adopted the UK’s 9-9-9 emergency number in 1959, which lasted until 1968 when Canada joined the U.S. 9-1-1 system, unifying the concept and giving 9-1-1 international stature. Most recently, Mexico signed on to 9-1-1 in January 2017, replacing three individual numbers for police, fire and EMS that were awkward and largely untrusted.
The path to 9-1-1
Flash back to 1957. Aware of the overseas emergency numbers used in Europe, the National Association of Fire Chiefs in the U.S. first recommended the creation of a national emergency phone number in 1957.
Prior to that time, callers reporting a crime, fire, or medical emergency were forced to make a direct call to the local precinct, firehouse or hospital with the potential for telephone exchange failure, lack of prioritization of calls or fire companies being out on a call.
After debating the issue nationally for 10 years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. (AT&T) met to find a solution.
They were likely prompted by President Johnson's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, which in 1967 recommended that a "single number should be established" nationwide for reporting emergency situations. The use of different telephone numbers for each type of emergency was determined to be contrary to the purpose of a single, universal number.
That solution was the selection of 9-1-1 as the number that all people living in America could use to summon help during emergencies effective in January 1968.
The number 9-1-1 was chosen primarily and necessarily because those three consecutive numbers were not in use within the U.S. phone systems as either a prefix or an area code. It may have been good planning or fortuitous coincidence that the latter two numbers, when dialing on the rotary phones of those ancient days, the “1” made it back to the start position in the fastest amount of time, allowing the number to be dialed speedily.
There was also some joking that AT&T or public safety services might need to make sure callers understood that the code was “nine-one-one” and not “nine-eleven,” although to date I don’t think there have been any reports of any caller anywhere successfully dialing an eleven key on their rotary phone. Today’s push-button, speed-dial smart phones makes that a moot point anyway.
A bid for Alabama
In 1968, AT&T, in accord with the FCC, originally planned to build its first 9-1-1 system in Huntington, Indiana. That decision irked Bob Gallagher, president of Alabama Telephone Co. (ATC), when he read about it in a Wall Street Journal article. Gallagher thought his small company should have an equal shot at launching the first 9-1-1 system.
“Bob was a little offended because the independent telephone companies had not been included in the FCC’s decision,” Haleyville’s mayor Ken Sunseri told the Alabama NewsCenter online newspaper in 2015.
Gallagher contacted Robert Fitzgerald, who was Inside State Plant Manager for ATC, and asked him to build the system. Fitzgerald identified Haleyville, in northwest Alabama, as the perfect site. There was some local debate over who should receive the calls, said Sunseri: “They discussed having the calls come into the hospital, the fire department or the police department. They decided the police department was the ideal place because it already had a dispatcher on-site.”
Fitzgerald then designed the circuitry and directed the effort to implement 9-1-1 in the town, building the system during off-hours. Fitzgerald completed the task within a week. And so it was that Haleyville, Alabama, took the spotlight from Huntsville, Indiana and has gone down in history as the “Home of 9-1-1.”
History Moves Forward
Sadly the original Haleyville City Hall, which included the police department and dispatch center, along with Fire Station #1, which was located behind it, were demolished in May 2015 to make room for a CVS store, promising new jobs and allowing for modern city facilities to be built elsewhere in the town, including a six-bay fire station, with five bays offering complete drive-through access.
Anything of any historical significance of sentiment was removed prior to the demolition. These things included the building’s cornerstone and the large sign on the front of the building commemorating Haleyville being the city where the first 9-1-1 call was placed.
Mayor Sunseri added that a special commemorative sign will be erected at the new CVS building when it is finished, recognizing the site as where the first 9-1-1 call was made. “This is progress,” the mayor remarked in a story that posted in the Northwest Alabamian newspaper on May 9, 2015. “This is change we hope will bring progress to the city. Everything has a life cycle, and it’s time for this to be changed.”
The new City Hall facility will contain the city clerk and mayor’s office, 9-1-1 dispatch, the police department, and conference and break rooms. Additional commemorative placards from the original building will be placed throughout City Hall in honor of Haleyville’s proud history with 9-1-1.
Progress Continues – One Call at a Time
By the end of the 20th century, according to NENA, nearly 93% of the population of the United States was covered by some type of 9-1-1 service.
The more rural, isolated areas of the country may only have Basic 9-1-1 – that means that when the three-digit number is dialed, a call taker/dispatcher/telecommunicator in the local public safety answering point (PSAP), or 9-1-1 center, answers the call. The emergency and its location are communicated by voice between the caller and the call taker.
In areas that have Basic 9-1-1, 95% of that service is Enhanced 9-1-1, wherein the local 9-1-1 center has equipment and database information that allow the call taker to see the caller's phone number and phone company billing address on a display. This lets them quickly dispatch emergency help, even if the caller is unable to communicate where they are or what the emergency is.
Currently, NENA reports approximately 96% of the geographic U.S. is covered by some type of 9-1-1 service.
The big issue these days has to do with Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), which addresses the problem of locating wireless phones/cell phones/smart phones and text-to-911. And that issue may need just a little more help from our friends to resolve.
About the author
Randall D. Larson retired after 20 years in public safety communications, serving as a shift supervisor, trainer and field communications supervisor for the San Jose (Calif.) Fire Department. Larson was also the editor of 9-1-1 Magazine from 1995 to 2009 and its online version from 2009 to 2018. He currently resides among the northern California Redwoods writing in a number of fields of interest.