First 911 Call in the United States Is Made Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The development of 911 as a standard emergency telephone number in the United States simplified and quickened emergency communications. After the initial 911 system was established and the first call successfully connected, engineers, telephone company officials, politicians, and public-safety personnel worked to establish similar services throughout the nation and to expand technological capabilities to aid callers in need of medical or other emergency care.

Summary of Event

After the invention of the telephone, people could report fires, accidents, and crimes by calling numbers for specific responders, depending on the emergency situation at hand. Dialing multiple-digit emergency numbers on rotary dials slowed response and was often complicated because assistance agencies sometimes had several emergency numbers assigned to them. Also, emergency numbers were unique in every community. Although calling “zero” (for “operator”) was fast, operators often were unable to determine expeditiously and correctly which responders were closest and which had jurisdiction for emergency sites. Telecommunications;telephony 911 emergency system[Nine one one emergency system] Emergency telephone numbers Universal Emergency Number [kw]First 911 Call in the United States Is Made (Feb. 16, 1968) [kw]911 Call in the United States Is Made, First (Feb. 16, 1968)[Nine one one] Telecommunications;telephony 911 emergency system[Nine one one emergency system] Emergency telephone numbers Universal Emergency Number [g]North America;Feb. 16, 1968: First 911 Call in the United States Is Made[09680] [g]United States;Feb. 16, 1968: First 911 Call in the United States Is Made[09680] [c]Communications and media;Feb. 16, 1968: First 911 Call in the United States Is Made[09680] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 16, 1968: First 911 Call in the United States Is Made[09680] [c]Science and technology;Feb. 16, 1968: First 911 Call in the United States Is Made[09680] Gallagher, Bob Fitzgerald, Robert Gilmer, Ben S. Loevinger, Lee Fite, Rankin Bevill, Tom Whitt, James H. Connor, Bull Roush, John Edward

Beginning with the United Kingdom’s 999 emergency 999 emergency system[Nine nine nine emergency system] number in July, 1937, European emergency personnel endorsed the idea for a standard number for people to call during emergencies, with trained operators to determine and deploy those who would respond to crises. Twenty years later, the National Association of Fire Chiefs in the United States requested a one-digit number for fire reporting. By 1958, U.S. congressmembers declared that a system similar to that in Great Britain should be developed in the United States.

In February, 1967, the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice stressed the benefits of creating a basic emergency telephone number, arguing that time was crucial for reporting crimes and apprehending perpetrators. The commission wanted a one-digit number for law enforcers. A report prepared by that commission’s Task Force on Science and Technology emphasized that a standard emergency number would minimize delays and confusion. This report led congressmembers in the fall of 1967 to approve the development of a nationwide emergency number. Federal Communications Commission Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Lee Loevinger and American Telephone and Telegraph American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) president Ben S. Gilmer supported the efforts of Congress to promote a dedicated emergency number for the whole country.

On January 12, 1968, The Wall Street Journal reported that AT&T would soon publicly announce a central emergency contact number. Three days later, The Wall Street Journal reported on a press conference held by AT&T officials in Representative John Edward Roush’s office in Washington, D.C. Gilmer announced that AT&T had designated 911 as the dedicated number for emergency help. The FCC endorsed AT&T’s announcement.

Gilmer, an electrical engineer from Alabama, understood the technological hurdles for adapting existing Bell telephone systems to handle 911 calls. He estimated that it would take several weeks to achieve the first call, planned for a location in Huntington, Indiana. Indiana was chosen because it was the home state of Representative Roush, an early and avid supporter of the 911 system. Gilmer noted that the three-digit number was compatible with all telephone systems. The number 911 was chosen, according to the National Emergency Number Association,

because it best fit the needs of all parties involved. First, and most important, it meets public requirements because it is brief, easily remembered, and can be dialed quickly. Second, because it is a unique number, never having been authorized as an office code, area code, or service code, it best meets the long range numbering plans and switching configurations of the telephone industry.

Bob Gallagher, Alabama Telephone Company Alabama Telephone Company (ATC) president, read in The Wall Street Journal about AT&T’s intentions to launch the first 911 system and was concerned that AT&T had not consulted independent telephone companies, such as ATC, excluding them from plans to implement the emergency number. In 1968, independent companies provided services for 20 percent of telephones in the United States. Belonging to the Continental System, ATC serviced twenty-seven thousand subscribers. Gallagher, a native of Huntington, West Virginia, was especially eager to be a part of the pioneering 911 system because his father had been a firefighter in his hometown.

Determined to use 911 prior to AT&T, Gallagher evaluated the twenty-seven telephone exchanges operated within the area serviced by ATC and assessed available personnel and equipment. He selected Haleyville Haleyville, Alabama in northwestern Alabama as the best site. Although Haleyville was a small rural community with approximately five thousand residents, it had the resources, including the right equipment and experienced and capable telephone employees, to achieve the first 911 connection. Gallagher contacted state officials to secure permission to proceed with his plans and arranged for engineers to adapt Haleyville’s telephone system to provide 911 services.

Robert Fitzgerald, an ATC plant manager, directed technicians to create the necessary circuits that would accommodate 911 calls. Gallagher issued a press release announcing that the first 911 call would be made in Haleyville on February 16. A front-page article in the February 9 Daily Northwest Alabamian, published in Haleyville, informed readers about the town’s forthcoming role in providing the first 911 service in the United States. Residents learned that everyone with access to a telephone, including public coin telephones, could call 911 to seek emergency help without being charged.

Gallagher invited notable Alabama politicians to send and receive the first 911 call. Alabama house speaker Rankin Fite, from nearby Hamilton, arrived at Haleyville on February 16 and waited with Mayor James H. Whitt in his city hall office to make the initial 911 call at 2:00 p.m. Tom Bevill, a U.S. representative from Jasper, waited with Gallagher and Alabama Public Service Commission president Bull Connor in the Haleyville police station for the red telephone designated for 911 emergency calls to ring. Fite dialed 9-1-1 from a telephone in the mayor’s office, Fitzgerald saw the switching gear process the call in an ATC facility, and Bevill answered the call.

The headline at the top of the February 18 issue of the Daily Northwest Alabamian announced Haleyville’s historic role in hosting the first 911 call in the United States. Haleyville would add the 911 emergency number to its town welcome signs. Two Alabama governors later issued proclamations recognizing Haleyville’s pioneering 911 call. The town holds an annual 911 festival, featuring safety lessons and emphasizing the role of the 911 number.

On February 27, Loevinger submitted a memorandum to the White House, emphasizing that government should support putting 911 into widespread service. Two weeks after the Haleyville 911 call, AT&T officials completed a successful 911 call in Huntington, Indiana. That same day, the Commission on Civil Disturbance stated the 1967 riots demonstrated the urgency for access to 911 services, and a Life magazine editorial praised the establishment of the nationwide 911 system.

Significance

Centralized emergency services available through one standard telephone number throughout the United States established an effective method for improved access to emergency resources nationwide. Because callers could require multiple services, such as police as well as ambulance, or because they were unsure what service they needed, 911 provided simultaneous access to all possible responders. People knew they could call 911 if they needed help while traveling or after moving to different communities. Access to telephone books, literacy, and English fluency were no longer necessary to receive emergency assistance. Also, children could easily learn how to dial 9-1-1 and call for help during times when adults were unable to do so.

Full implementation of the 911 system was delayed until local telephone exchanges had sufficient equipment and personnel to staff 911 lines. There was initial resistance to the program because of cost concerns (for example, adjusting or altering exchanges), complex legal issues, and problems with cooperation and synchronization among emergency agencies. Almost three years after the Haleyville call, New York City became the first large urban area to expand its system for 911 capabilities. Progress was slow, though. Approximately seven hundred 911 systems, primarily in urban communities, functioned a decade after the Haleyville call, but it took thirty years for three-fourths of Americans to have 911 access. In October, 1999, the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act (1999) declared 911 the country’s official emergency number. Establishing Enhanced 911 protocols, the law required that physical addresses be assigned to all incoming land-based 911 calls. All cell phones sold in the United States were required to include GPS locator chips or comparable functionality, so the physical locations of those callers could be established as well. Engineers continue to update and enhance 911 capabilities for “land lines” and mobile telephones. Telecommunications;telephony 911 emergency system[Nine one one emergency system] Emergency telephone numbers Universal Emergency Number

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bordner, Kenneth R., and J. Spenser Huston. 911: Study of the Single Emergency Telephone Number. Philadelphia: Franklin Institute Research Laboratories, 1970. Booklet produced as part of a federal government investigation analyzing potential benefits of 911. Emphasizes that available technology enabled the immediate enactment of the system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Emergency Number Association. http://www .nena.org. The emergency services industry site. A nonprofit organization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Noll, A. Michael. Introduction to Telephones and Telephone Systems. 3d ed. Boston: Artech House, 1998. Includes a section that describes how 911 systems operate, and discusses how technical improvements can encourage communities to finance the emergency service.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Looney, John. Emergency 911 Services: A Guide for Georgia Local Governments. Athens: Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 1997. Discusses universal aspects of 911 systems, including training personnel, building facilities, educating residents, and working with such related services as post offices and hospitals, which are crucial for maintaining effective 911 systems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ormsby, Charles C., Jr., and Philip M. Salafia, Jr. 911 Liability: A Call for Answers. Madison, Conn.: PowerPhone, 1998. Describes 911’s historical development and explains the legal implications of negligence and mistakes related to 911 services. An appendix includes notable cases. Provides a telecommunications and legal glossary.

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