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Call 911!

National emergency service celebrates 50th anniversary

Created date

April 19th, 2018
A Chicago Police Department dispatcher.

A Chicago Police Department dispatcher.

When a crisis occurs, the first thing most Americans do is call 911. Whether to report a crime, an urgent health condition, or a fire, that universal, easy-to-remember number is the quickest and most reliable means of getting emergency services to anyone in need.

When someone calls 911, the call is routed to a central call center known as a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) staffed by dispatchers who send first responders to the scene. It all works so fluidly, people often take the system for granted.

However, it wasn’t always so easy to call for help. Go back more than 50 years, before the 911 system existed, and getting the right kind of assistance was hit-or-miss. People would have to call the fire station or the police department or the rescue squad directly. They could also dial zero to reach the operator, but telephone operators were not trained to handle major emergencies.

Establishing a universal number

In 1957, the National Association of Fire Chiefs proposed creating a universal number to report fires. Ten years later, a presidential commission expanded that proposal. Because using different numbers for different emergencies led to confusion and mixed signals, the commission supported using a single number nationwide to report all emergency situations.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) worked with AT&T to devise a national centralized system. In 1968, AT&T announced that the code 911 had been chosen for the universal number. With only three digits, the number was short and easy for the public to remember. It was also relatively easy to dial—back in 1968, rotary phones were still in use.

Next, Congress passed legislation establishing 911 as the nation’s standard emergency number.

On Feb. 16, 1968, the Alabama speaker of the house, Rankin Fite, was at Haleyville, Ala., city hall. He picked up the handset of a telephone and dialed 911. In another office in the same city hall building, a special red phone labeled “911” rang. When U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill picked up that red phone and said “hello,” history was made. It was the first-ever 911 call.

Haleyville is so proud of being the first city in America to make a 911 call, they celebrate with an annual 911 festival.

A growing system

Getting the 911 system in place across the country was a long, slow process. By the end of 1976, 911 served about 17% of Americans. By 1987, 50% of the U.S. population had access to 911 emergency service numbers.

Today, approximately 96% of the geographic U.S. is covered by some type of 911 service.

About 240 million 911 calls are made each year. Not surprisingly, 70% of those calls are placed from wireless phones.

While smartphone apps like Uber can instantly pinpoint a wireless caller’s location, that is not true for many 911 systems. Often, dispatchers will see a location generated by a nearby cell phone tower, not the caller’s actual location. This has led to confusion and delays at times when speed and accuracy are vital.

At some point in the future, municipalities around the U.S. will update their systems. Until then, the FCC has compiled a list of tips and suggestions for when you need to call 911 on a wireless phone.


Making a 911 call from a wireless phone


Tell the emergency operator the location of the emergency immediately.


Provide the emergency operator with your wireless phone number, so you can be reached if the call gets disconnected.


Most dispatch centers cannot receive texts, photos, and videos.


If your wireless phone is not “initialized” (meaning you do not have a contract for service with a wireless service provider), and your emergency call gets disconnected, you must call the emergency operator back because the operator does not have your telephone number and cannot contact you.


To help public safety personnel allocate emergency resources, learn and use the designated number in your state for highway accidents or other non-life-threatening incidents. (States often reserve specific numbers for these types of incidents. For example, “#77” is the number used for highway accidents in Virginia.)


Refrain from programming your phone to automatically dial 911 when one button, such as the “9” key, is pressed. Unintentional wireless 911 calls, which often occur when auto-dial keys are inadvertently pressed, cause problems for emergency call centers.


If your wireless phone came pre-programmed with the auto-dial 911 feature turned on, turn it off (consult your user manual for instructions).


Lock your keypad when you’re not using your wireless phone to help prevent accidental calls to 911.


Create a contact in your wireless phone’s memory with the name “ICE” (In Case of Emergency), which lists the phone numbers of people you want to have notified in an emergency.

Source: Federal Communications Commission

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