When life turns on a dime and you find yourself in desperate need of emergency assistance, your first instinct is likely to pick up the closest phone and dial 9-1-1. While this is second nature to us today, there wasn’t always an emergency system such as 9-1-1 in place. In fact, prior to 1973 (origins as early as 1957), there wasn’t a nationwide number giving citizens access to emergency services. Today, the number 9-1-1 is known as the “Universal Emergency Number” and is available to virtually all U.S. citizens. More on the history of 9-1-1 below:
The First Appearance of a Nationwide Emergency Number
The first example of a nationwide emergency telephone number within the United States of America was noted in 1957. The original idea was to create a nationally accepted or utilized number to report fires. Therefore, it was the brainchild of the National Association of Fire Chiefs. The idea was expanded upon in 1967 after the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice determined “a single number should be established” for nationwide reporting of any and all emergency situations. While the idea of having a different number for differing emergencies was toyed with, it was ultimately determined this could cause confusion and the single-number system was outlined. Various government officials and Federal Government Agencies got behind the recommendation.
The Logistics of the Idea
While the idea in theory was a good one, implementing a nationwide emergency system was easier said than done. The President’s Commission on Civil Disorders ultimately turned to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a plan of action. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company, known by us today as AT&T, met with the FCC in November 1967 to talk the logistics through. It was important to determine a way to implement a nationwide system as quickly as possible. In 1968, the digits 9-1-1 were designated to be used as the nationwide emergency code by AT&T.
The digits 9-1-1 were selected as the emergency code because it can be easily dialed and remembered, even by children. It is also unique and has never been authorized or issued as either a service code, area code or office code, meaning it has stayed firmly in place throughout the various configurations and long-range number plans affecting the telephone industry throughout history.
Putting it Into Action
Once the number was determined and the idea approved, Congress backed AT&T's proposal and passed the legislation to designate the numbers 9-1-1 to be used as the nationwide emergency calling service.
The Very First 9-1-1 Call
Senator Rankin Fite was the first person to complete a 9-1-1 call. The call was placed on February 16, 1968, in Haleyville, Alabama. The telephone company used to place the call was the Alabama Telephone Company. (Interestingly enough, the Haleyville 9-1-1 system is still in place and operated today.)
Nationwide Adoption of the System
The White House’s Office of Telecommunications published a proclamation in March 1973 that outlined the benefits of the nationwide emergency service number. It encouraged nationwide adoption of the 9-1-1 system. The Federal Information Center was established in an effort to assist units of government in both the implementation and planning of the system. The cost of implementation of the nationwide system was absorbed by a Bell System policy via a general base rate. Local Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) were tasked with the cost of network trunking, based on tariffed rates.
The Modern 9-1-1 System
What started out as an idea and commenced with one call is now a universally accepted tool to get help quick in the case of an emergency. By the end of the 20th century, almost 94% of Americans had access to some form of 9-1-1 emergency services. According to the National Emergency Number Association, as of the year 2000, there were around 150 million calls placed to 9-1-1. Virtually everyone born after the year 1960 was raised to use of 9-1-1 as a life-saving tool we know it as today. If you are in need of emergency services, our Montgomery County Emergency Communication District (MCECD) infrastructure system is ready to serve you.