What Is Your Emergency?
February 16, 1968: Tom Bevill picks up a phone in Haleyville, Alabama and says “Hello.” Before rotary dial phones were invented, operators connected all calls. If a caller needed to reach the police or fire department, they didn’t need a number. The switchboard worker would connect the panicked person without delay. The operator could also see who was placing the call and direct emergency services to the right place. After people were able to place calls directly, there were many communities who kept an emergency operator employed and dialing “0” got immediate help.
Emergency services tried to get easily memorized numbers so callers could reach them directly. Some systems worked better than others. In the UK in 1937, an experimental national system was set up using 999 for emergency calls. The first North American city to use a central emergency number was Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1959. A push for a nationwide emergency system in the US came in 1957 from the National Association of Fire Chiefs. Ten years later, a presidential commission charged the FCC and AT&T to come up with a solution.
AT&T used the Winnipeg model but changed the number to 9-1-1. The number was selected because other *-1-1 numbers had been used by AT&T since the 1920s – for example, 4-1-1 for directory service. There were other safety and routing concerns which also made the number desirable. AT&T announced their plan in a press conference and it was reported in the Wall Street Journal on January 15, 1968. Bob Gallagher, president of the Alabama Telephone Company wanted to beat AT&T’s implementation date. Robert Fitzgerald helped with the circuitry for Haleyville. The system was tested and worked with US Representative Tom Bevill fielding the first 9-1-1 call in the US.
While it is supposed to be nationwide, there is still 4% of the US serving 1% of the population without the service. The number is always read as “nine-one-one” rather than “nine-eleven.” There have been enhancements since the system was first introduced. Cell phones and Internet telephones have made routing issues a concern. Hoax calls may result in criminal charges. As many as 45% of the calls placed in the US each year are said to be for non-emergency issues. Other countries have different emergency numbers with most of them also being a simple three digit number.
The prizes go to those who meet emergencies successfully. And the way to meet emergencies is to do each daily task the best we can. – William Feather
We must not tolerate politicians who infringe upon our right to defend ourselves from thieves and stalkers and rapists and murderers. And we must not tolerate the politician who simply says: “Pass another gun control law and call 9-1-1.” – Larry Craig
The primary responsibility for dealing with emergencies does not belong to the federal government. It belongs to local and state officials who are charged by law with the management of the crucial first response to disasters.” – Bob Williams
I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency, even if I’m in a cabinet meeting. – Ronald Reagan
Also on this day:
King Tut – In 1923, Howard Carter opened the tomb of King Tutankhamen.
Nylon – In 1937. Nylon was patented.
Altmark Incident – In 1940, the German ship, Altmark, was boarded by cutlass wielding soldiers.