The First '911' Call Was 46 Years Ago Today

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Forty-six years ago today, the country’s first ‘911’ call was made. From those humble beginnings back in 1968, public safety communications have steadily come of age–with advancements being made daily in multimodal, multimedia emergency communications.

Soon, you’ll be able to send 911 dispatchers text messages, photos and video in an emergency.

“At the FCC, we are currently working on several proceedings designed to make Next Generation 911 a reality,” FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said recently in remarks to the Congressional NG 911 Caucus. “Just last week, for example, we adopted a Policy Statement and made some proposals that I hope will bring us one step closer to text-to-911 functionality. This is an exciting development—-one that holds the potential to save many lives. But as we move forward with cutting-edge technologies, we can’t afford to neglect the basics.”

Related article: PBX E911: An Open Letter to the FCC

The “basics” he was referring to are the estimated 300 million calls to 911 that occur each year from citizens in desperate need of assistance. This service, which exists ubiquitously in our lives, can be traced back 46 years to the humble little northern Alabama town of Haleyville.

Every year, on Feb. 16, I get the privilege and honor to recount the story of where 911 began, in this town of 6,000 people. According to the Haleyville Fire Department website, there have been just 35 fire calls there so far this year.

So why is this town so important? What is their great claim to fame? In addition to sharing a name with my favorite daughter, this sleepy little town, deep in the land of good BBQ, happens to be the birthplace of the 911 network in the US, and home of the undisputed very first 911 call ever made in this country. That call happened at 2 p.m., 46 years ago, on February 16th, 1968.

In recognition of that historic event, Roger D. Wilson of Walker County 9-1-1 and past President of the Alabama Chapter of NENA has graciously granted me permission to reprint the history of 9-1-1 here, as well as on my weekly E911 Talk Podcast.

* * *

Before Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, (June 2, 1875) public safety was served by town criers. A town crier would walk the streets of a town and cry out for help in emergency situations. In the 1950′s, independent telephone companies were very common in the United States. If you wanted the police, you dialed the police station. If you had a fire, you called the fire department. If you needed any emergency help, you dialed the individual you needed, or you could dial ” 0″ and get the operator. Then he or she would ring the persons you were calling for.

In 1958, Congress called for an universal emergency number. At this time, the President’s Commission of Law Enforcement and the F.C.C. started arguing over a single easy to remember number. This was due to the large volume of emergency calls going to telephone company operators. A person may be calling for emergency help while the operator was giving information on the number of Aunt Betsy in Louisiana or Uncle Charles in Oklahoma, which lead to delays in emergency responses. Telephone companies were facing the problem of how to separate emergencies from general business. For over ten years, the idea was discussed and argued about among the different agencies who wanted to receive the calls. Police said they should answer all calls, the Fire Department felt they were the better choice, some even felt the local hospital was the best answer.

According to a report in the Fayette, Alabama Times Record commemorating the 25th anniversary of the historic event, B.W. Gallagher, President of Alabama Telephone Company, said he was inspired by an article in the Wall Street Journal. He read that the president of AT&T and the FCC had announced that 911 would be the nationwide emergency number. Being a bit offended by the fact that the views of the independent telephone industry had been overlooked in this decision, Gallagher decided to make the Alabama Telephone Company the first to implement 9-1-1.

Gallagher consulted with Robert Fitzgerald, inside plant manager for the Alabama Telephone Company, who examined schematics of the company’s 27 exchanges. Fitzgerald chose Haleyville because its existing equipment was best suited to be quickly converted to receive 9-1-1 calls. Fitzgerald then designed the circuitry and installed the first 911 system in less than a week. Working with Fitzgerald to achieve this goal were technicians Pete Gosa, Jimmy White, Al Bush and Glenn Johnston.

In the early stages, the city fathers were skeptical of 9-1-1 calls being answered at the police station. They, like persons in Congress, were afraid that the city might not have the personnel qualified to answer “all out emergency calls.”

Haleyville

Haleyville, Alabama introduced the nation’s first 9-1-1 system, which was located at the police station. Alabama Speaker of the House, Rankin Fite, made the first call from another city hall room. It was answered by Congressman Tom Bevill on a bright red telephone located in the police department. Also on hand was Haleyville Mayor James Whitt, Public Service Commission President Eugene (Bull) Connor, and B. W. Gallagher.

So on February 16, 1968, the first 9-1-1 call was made:

Haleyville

Happy Birthday 9-1-1!
 You’ve saved countless lives, including mine.

Also read: 3 Simple Ways to Prevent Future E911 Tragedies


Want more technology, news and information from Avaya? Be sure to check out the Avaya Podcast Network landing page at http://avaya.com/APN. There, you will find additional podcasts from industry events, such as Avaya Evolutions and INTEROP, as well as other informative series by the APN staff.

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Thanks for stopping by and reading the Avaya Connected blog on E9-1-1. I value your opinions, so please feel free to comment below or, if you prefer, email me privately.

Public comments, suggestions, corrections and loose change is all graciously accepted 😉

Until next week… dial carefully.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Fletch911

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