Before the establishment of 911, attempting to reach emergency services in the US was a challenge. There was no standardized emergency number in the United States; people had to call their local police or fire department directly, which could be challenging to remember and time-consuming in an emergency. The United Kingdom was the first to recognize and implement a dedicated number, with the implementation of 999 in 1937. It was another thirty years before a system would be adopted in the US.
The National Association of Fire Chiefs was the first emergency response group to recommend a similar system in the US. They advocated for implementing a single number to streamline the reporting of and responses to fires. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the idea took off, however. The need for a standardized emergency number became evident after several tragic incidents where people could not reach emergency services quickly enough due to confusion over which number to call. In 1967, the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended creating a single number for reporting emergencies. The number had to be easy to dial on a rotary phone, easy to remember, and held apart from any other uses. The project was given to the FCC after it became evident that there was support for the idea across multiple agencies. Working with AT&T, the FCC recommended the number 911. Congress agreed, and the number was officially reserved for emergency use.
Interestingly, the first 911 call in the US was not an emergency. In 1968 in Hayleyville, Alabama, Congressman Rankin Fite made the first 911 call to test the system. Police were appropriately dispatched, and the test was declared successful; 911 was implemented citywide. The second implementation was in Nome, Alaska, and the rest of the nation quickly followed suit. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began to develop and promote the 911 system nationwide, and by the end of the 1970s, 26 states had adopted the 911 system. By the end of the 1980s, the system was available to over 50% of the US population.
The FCC passed the 911 Act in 1999, requiring all phone companies to provide 911 service to all customers. The importance of the 911 system was highlighted by the attacks of September 11, 2001. In response, the Federal Government extended funding to enhance and further modernize the system. In 2003, the FCC required all phone companies to implement E911, which automatically provides caller information to emergency services, and in 2012, a plan was approved for nationwide text-to-911 services. Further advancements have included technologies allowing more precise location tracking, video to 911, and NextGen 911, which will move 911 services from analog to digital and further streamline response.
From its humble beginnings with a single call in Hayleyville, 911 has grown exponentially as a national resource. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 911 PSAPs and 911 call centers employed approximately 95,000 public safety telecommunicators as of May 2020. That same year, 911 dispatchers answered over 240 million calls, averaging over 600,000 per day. Public Safety Telecommunicators were considered administrative staff for many years, a designation that left dispatchers unable to access many of the benefits given to first responders. A push began to recognize dispatchers as first responders, with the same rights and benefits as other first responders, including access to mental health services. In 2019, Texas passed a bill to include dispatchers in the definition of ‘emergency responder’. Other states quickly followed, but while many recognize the importance of this first point of contact for individuals needing help and their instrumental role in ensuring the safety of the public and the first responders, there are still strides to be made in the reclassification of dispatchers.
The 911 system continues to evolve and improve, adopting new technologies and ensuring that everyone has access to life-saving assistance. Since that historic first call in Alabama, 911 has streamlined emergency services responses, and together, 911 dispatchers and emergency services have saved countless lives.