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How 9-1-1 became America’s emergency number

The first 9-1-1 call came on 16 February 1968; Congress rubber-stamped the number in 1999.

Firefighters called for it in 1957; a federal commission floated the idea in 1967; AT&T picked the numbers in 1968; and Alabama Telephone Co. orchestrated the first call on 17 February 1968.

The idea: “a three-digit phone number people could call for emergencies from anywhere in the U.S.”

It wasn’t a new idea. Britain introduced its 999 emergency telephone system in London on 30 June 30 1937. The impetus: five women were killed in a house fire in 1935. In 1986, the 999 service was integrated with mobile phones.

Thirty-one years after 999 debuted in London, President Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended we follow suit (page 250, pdf):

Wherever practical, a single police telephone number should be established, at least within a metropolitan area and eventually over the entire United States, comparable to the telephone company’s long-distance information number.

That November, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and AT&T discussed development of a universal emergency number. Afterwards, AT&T “announced that it would establish the digits 9-1-1 (nine-one-one) as the emergency code throughout the United States.”

But AT&T would not implement the first system.

In early February 1968, Bob Gallagher, the president of the Alabama Telephone Co., read about the decision and was upset independent carriers had been left out of the conversation.

Because the company “was already working on an exchange” in Haleyville, “it was easy to install the system,” which included a bright red telephone at the police station.

On 16 February 1968, Alabama U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill and Alabama state House Speaker Rankin Fite completed the (ceremonial) first 9-1-1 call made in the United States.

On 22 February 1968, Nome, Alaska implemented 9-1-1 service.

Universality came slowly. By 1977, 9-1-1 served only about 17% of the U.S. population. Ten years later, 50%. By the end of the century, “[a]pproximately 96% of the geographic US [was] covered by some type of 9-1-1.”

When it was time to integrate mobile phones, once again the U.S. lagged the U.K.  The Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 directed the FCC “to make 911 the universal emergency number for all telephone services.”

That was 13 years after mobile phone integration across the Atlantic. And the same year that Congress codified 9-1-1 by “direct[ing] the FCC to make 911 the universal emergency number in the United States for all telephone services.”

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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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