When (And Why) Did We Start Calling 911 Anyway?

Before the 1960s, the phrase "this is 911, what's your emergency?" meant nothing. Today, Americans know to dial 911, the universal emergency number, to connect with police, fire departments, and other emergency services. Across the country, emergency dispatchers handle traumatic calls, including haunting calls that operators never forget. But prior to 1968, 911 as we know it didn't exist, begging the questions: When did the 911 service start? And how did 911 start?

Earlier emergency systems relied on fire alarm telegraphs, wooden clackers, or just loud shouting. For decades after the invention of the telephone, Americans had to memorize local police and fire department numbers, a system that created havoc. The origin of the 911 number started with fire departments promoting a better system to identify emergencies. But Americans didn't start calling 911 for emergencies until a young girl lost her life in front of 40 witnesses who were unable to reach police. Her demise made national headlines. Even once the federal government proposed a universal emergency number, they turned to an unlikely source to choose the numbers "911." The history of the 911 system traces a national response to a local challenge - helping people in emergency situations. 

Emergency Services Before 911

Article ImageBefore 911, how did people respond to emergencies? Time is critical during an emergency, so early emergency alert systems prioritized speed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, American cities relied on watchmen, who alerted the city by shaking wooden rattles and shouting. The sound not only alerted residents - it also called up volunteer firefighters, who would show up with buckets and axes. 

In the 19th century, Philadelphia experimented with a fire alert system at the top of the Pennsylvania State House. The watchman would ring the bell once for a fire to the north, twice for a fire to the south, and so on, warning people about the fire and providing information on its location. 

Advances in technology offered a breakthrough in emergency services. In 1857, William F. Channing and Moses Farmer patented the "Electric Telegraph to signalize Alarms of Fire." In Boston, Channing and Farmer created a dense network of telegraph lines and alarm boxes, where citizens could send signals using electric currents. The alarm would set off bell clappers at the emergency scene and central station. Early tests failed, however, because eager citizens cranked the alarm too fast, resulting in a garbled signal. 

John Nelson Gamewell led the next advance in emergency systems, creating fire alarm boxes that were found in nearly 500 cities by 1890. Rather than placing alarms on streets, a new technology - the telephone - let people report emergencies from within their own homes. 

Local Emergency Response Meant Memorizing Phone Numbers

The first telephone systems, in some ways, had a built-in emergency service. Before rotary dial phones, all phone calls went to an operator, who directed the call. Anyone calling with an emergency could be quickly connected to their local police station or fire department. But rotary phones introduced a new wrinkle. People had to place direct calls to emergency providers, which meant memorizing a lot of phone numbers. Article Image

In Los Angeles, for instance, residents were served by 50 different police departments, all with different phone numbers. If callers weren't sure what number to ring, they could always hit 0 to speak with an operator, but that step could easily add delays.

The system was extremely confusing for users. In 1946, the Washington Post reported on a woman who tried to call for help when her apartment caught fire, writing, "[S]he tried vainly to reach an operator by dialing the emergency number '311.' In her excitement, she forgot the fire control center's number, Union 1122."

Even when people did get the right number, sometimes the police or fire department didn't pick up. In 1921, Public Service Magazine reported that Bellevue Hospital in New York City received up to 2,500 emergency phone calls every day.

In 1958, Rosamund Reinhardt wrote a letter to The New York Times complaining about the system. She tried calling the operator to report a fire, but the line kept dropping. The delay nearly cost Reinhardt her life: "I discovered the time I had wasted in telephoning was just enough to prevent my getting out of the apartment, as the hall was impassable due to smoke." The close call left Reinhardt wondering, "Would it not be possible to cut out the operator stage by dialing directly some prearranged emergency number?"

The UK Created The First Emergency Number In The 1930s

The US lagged behind other countries in creating an emergency number. The United Kingdom, for example, created its first three-digit emergency number in 1937. Londoners could call 999 to reach emergency services. The successful system was run by the post office.

Why did it take the US longer to create the 911 system? For years, firefighters promoted the idea. In 1920, an article in the Quarterly of the National Fire Protection Association recommended switching from the older telegraph alarms to a telephone alarm. By the 1950s, some US cities installed telephone alarms on the street so people could phone the fire department directly in case of emergencies. Yet people were still stuck memorizing local police and fire department phone numbers or hoping the operator would pick up.

By 1957, the International Association of Fire Chiefs recommended creating a single national emergency number, but it would still take more than 10 years for the first 911 system.

A Slaying Spurred The Creation Of The Universal Emergency Number

Article ImageOn March 16, 1964, Kitty Genovese was targeted outside her New York City apartment. Genovese, just 28 years old, stumbled into her stairwell, where nearly 40 people might have heard her crying for help. No one was able to reach the police and, as a result, Genovese perished. 

Genovese's demise made headlines across the country. Many believed she could have lived if any of the potential witnesses could have found a way to intervene. Although much of the media coverage focused on human apathy, the incident raised questions about the nation's emergency system. 

Genovese's story helped build support for a national emergency number. As author Kevin Cook reports, "One of Genovese's neighbors remembers his dad trying to reach police but his call wasn't answered." Cook explains, “In those days, there was no 911 system. That’s something that came out of the Kitty Genovese case."

The Birth Of 911

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice proposed a national emergency number. In their report, the commission recommended that "wherever practical, a single police telephone number should be established, at least within a metropolitan area and eventually over the entire United States."

With growing federal support, the 911 system was created through a partnership between AT&T and the FCC. In fact, AT&T chose 911 as the universal emergency number. Since AT&T provided phone service to nearly all US phone customers, it made sense for the communications company to designate the number.

On January 12, 1968, AT&T announced the new number. They chose 911 because the numbers were considered easy to dial on a rotary phone, and 911 hadn't yet been used as an area code. It also followed the three-digit model AT&T had already established. People called 411 for directory assistance and 611 for customer service. Proponents also thought the new number would be easy to remember. An FCC member even boasted that 911 would be easier to remember than 007.

Congress quickly passed legislation to make 911 the standard emergency number across the country. And unlike other calls, which might incur a fee, 911 calls were free - or, rather, Bell System incorporated the cost of 911 calls into its base rate. 

The first 911 call took place on February 16, 1968. Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite placed a call from Haleyville, AL. Congressman Tom Bevill answered the phone with a simple "hello." One week later, Nome, AK, debuted the country's second 911 system. Canada quickly declared they would also use the number 911 for emergencies, making the new system international.

911 Didn't Take Off Immediately - And The System Still Faces Problems

Article ImageIn 1977, nearly 10 years after the debut of 911, only about 17% of the population had 911 service, a number that grew to 26% by 1979. In 1987, a full 50% of the US population still wasn't covered by a 911 emergency service system. 

For the first several decades of 911 service, the telephone company provided emergency calls as a public service. It wasn't until the Public Safety Act of 1999 that 911 became the nation's official emergency number.

The '90s ushered in another major change to the emergency number with the growth of cell phones. Today, over 80% of 911 calls come from cell phones. The shift created a challenge for emergency services since mobile phones don't provide the same location data as a home phone. Instead of improving emergency services, the rise of mobile phones actually made it more difficult to direct emergency services to the correct location. Between 2011-2013, over half of cell phone 911 calls in California did not include locations. In 2014, nearly 40% of Colorado's 911 calls from mobile phones didn't include coordinates.

David Shoar, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, warned the FCC,  "It is now easier than ever for victims to reach 911, but harder than ever for responders to reach them."

The FCC provides guidelines for 911 wireless calls, including instructions to identify your location immediately and give emergency operators your phone number.