National 911 History

Early Beginnings
911 is the 3-digit telephone number that has been designated as the universal emergency number, for public use throughout the United States to request emergency assistance. It is intended as a nationwide telephone number giving the public direct access to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) which will be responsible for taking the appropriate action. In the United States, the 1st catalyst for a nationwide emergency telephone number gained momentum in 1957 when the National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended use of a single number for reporting fires nationwide.

In 1967, the President’s Commission of Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended that a “single number should be established” nationwide for reporting emergency situations. The use of different telephone numbers for each type of emergency was determined to be contrary to the purpose of a single, universal number. Other Federal Government Agencies and various governmental officials also supported and encouraged the recommendation. As a result of the immense interest in this issue, the President’s Commission on Civil Disorders turned to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a solution.

Finding a Solution

In November of 1967, the FCC met with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) to find a means of establishing a universal emergency number that could be implemented quickly. In 1968, AT&T announced that it would establish the digits 911 as the emergency code throughout the United States.

The code 911 was chosen 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.

Congress backed AT&T’s proposal and passed legislation allowing use of only the numbers 911 when creating a single emergency calling service thereby making 911 a standard emergency number nationwide. A Bell System policy was established to absorb the cost of central office modifications and any additions necessary to accommodate the 911 code as part of the general rate base. The E911 subscriber is responsible for paying network trunking costs according to tariffed rates, and for purchasing answering equipment from the vendor of their choice.

First Emergency Call

On February 16, 1968, Senator Rankin Fite completed the first 911 call to be made in the United States in Haleyville, Alabama. The serving telephone company was Alabama Telephone Company, which later became Contel Corp. This 911 system is still in operation today. On February 22, 1968, Nome, Alaska implemented 911 service.

National Policy Statement

In March 1973, the White House’s Office of Telecommunications, issued a national policy statement, which recognized the benefits of 911, encouraged the nationwide adoption of 911, and provided for the establishment of a Federal Information Center to assist units of government in planning and implementation. The intense interest in the concept of 911 can be attributed primarily to the recognition of characteristics of modern society such as:
  • Increased incidences of crimes, accidents, and medical emergencies
  • Inadequacy of existing emergency reporting methods
  • Continued growth and mobility of the population
Selective Call Routing
In the early 1970s, AT&T began the development of sophisticated features for the 911 with a pilot program in Alameda County, California. The feature was selective call routing. This pilot program supported the theory behind the Executive Office of Telecommunication’s Policy. By the end of 1976, 911 was serving about 17% of the population of the United States. In 1979, approximately 26% of the population of the United States had 911 service, and 9 states had enacted 911 legislation. At this time, 911 service was growing at the rate of 70 new systems per year.

By1987, those figures had grown to indicate that 50% of the US population has access to 911 emergency service numbers. In addition, Canada recognized the advantages of a single emergency number and chose to adopt 911 rather than use a different means of emergency reporting service, thus unifying the concept and giving 911 international stature.

At the end of the 20th century, nearly 93% of the population of the United States was covered by some type of service, 95% of that coverage was Enhanced 911. Approximately 50% of the geographical area is covered by some type of 911 with the same percentage being enhanced 911.