HISTORY OF 911
When was 911 "invented?" The simple answer is: 41 years ago. However, the development of the three-digit number in the United States is slightly more complex than a single date. Here is a summary of how it was implemented for the first time in the United States, and events leading up to that historic event.
By the way, this collection of material was prompted by Reba Fitzgerald, who contacted me after the death of her husband in June 2001: it was Robert Fitzgerald and his colleagues who implemented the first 911 system in Haleyville (Ala.) in 1968. Ms. Fitzgerald spent the last year of her life sending me stories, papers and other materials to set the record straight, Then, no doubt satisfied she had accomplished some measure of success in memorializing her husband's work, she died in August 2002.
There is no debate on where the first 911 call was placed. However, there is considerable unverifiable information about who was involved and how 911 was developed. I have investigated the genesis of the first 911 system, and present here the first accurate, documented history of 911, including key dates, whether I've confirmed the event with documentation from the time (not from later recollections), and the details of the event. I hope this account finally gives credit to those whose imagination and spirit helped create the invaluable resource of 911. -- Gary Allen
March 10, 1876
OK, this may be pushing history a bit too far, but.....Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call for help during testing of his gear. Bell reportedly dropped some battery acid on his clothes and said those famous words, "Mr. Watson, come here -- I want to see you!" His assistant, Thomas A. Watson, heard the words over the set-up they were testing and came to his aid. The "spill" part of the story is unlikely to be true. However, Bell's own notebook confirms the first call.
July 8, 1937
Britain implemented its 999 emergency telephone system serving police, fire and EMS after phone calls were delayed reporting 5-fatality fire on Wimpole Street. The first 999 call was placed at 4:20 a.m. when the wife of John Stanley Beard (33 Elsworthy Rd., Hampstead, London) dialed 999 to report a burglar outside her home. The burglary, 24 yeard-old Thomas Duffys, was apprehended.
The National Association of Fire Chiefs reportedly suggested a single number for reporting fires.
New Zealand debuted their 111 emergency number.
June 21, 1959
According to the Winnipeg (Man.) Police Department, North America's first three-digit (999) emergency telephone system was introduced in that city at the urging of mayor Stephen Juba, and the operation's first supervisor was Helen Aizita Woollard, who went on to become an officer. There were initially eight Emergency Telephone Operators, of which Lucienne Galinas was one of the original hires. Women were hired because the system's budget was too small to pay men ($200 vs. $345 a month). Canada converted its three-digit emergency number to 911 in 1972.
Australia introduced its 000 emergency number in metropolitan areas of the country.
President Lyndon Johnson's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice issued its report, recommending that police departments have a single number to call, and that eventually that single number should be used nationwide. The report stated, "The Commission recommends: 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." The recommendation was based on input from the Commission's Task Force on Science and Technology [see June 3, 1967 entry]
May 23, 1967
Indiana Rep. Ed Roush attended House sub-committee hearings on the Comprehensive Fire Research and Safety Act of 1967. When firefigher Leonard Kershner, representing the International Association of Firefighters, is asked why the U.S. suffered so many fire deaths compared to other countries, he mentioned response time as one consideration. According to Roush, he immediately suggested a single, nationwide telephone number for reporting fires.
June 3, 1967
The Commission's Task Force on Science and Technology publicly released its final report upon which the full Commission's recommendation was based.
Based on talks, memos and other correspondence between the Commission and the White House, the concept of a single emergency telephone number worked its way to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and then to AT&T, which was the major telephone carrier at the time. The FCC and AT&T met during Nov. to work out details of the system.
Nov. 8, 1967
The FCC sent Congress its comments on House Concurrent Resolution 361, which supported the concept of a single nationwide emergency number.
Dec. 21, 1967
Presidential aide Dennis Flannery sent a memo to aide Matt Nimetz about two recommendations made in the Task Force's report (see June 3, 1967 above)--additional radio spectrum and a single emergency number. In it, Flannery writes, "The telephone industry has consistently argued that the telephone operator is an adequate emergency number."
Jan. 12, 1968
AT&T announced their designation of 911 as a universal emergency number at a press conference in the Washington (DC) office of Indiana Rep. Ed Roush, who had championed for Congressional support for "one number." AT&T's plan affected only the Bell companies, and not any of the independent telephone companies. Up to this point, the number "911" wasn't mentioned in any literature, and apparently wasn't identified until the press conference. In fact, a Wall Street Journal article written the day before the press conference didn't mention "911" as the number that AT&T selected.
There is rampant speculation on why the number sequence "9-1-1" was selected. We've not uncovered any documents that outline the exact reasons those numbers were selected. According to the Wall Street Journal article (see below), "AT&T said it used a computer" to select the number, although that sounds somewhat misleading. The selection probably was based on a combination of factors, including the precedent of Britain using a three-digit number, the ease of dialing two "ones" on a rotary dial phone, and other technical switching considerations. See Mr. Norling's recollections below and our Alternate History page for more on why the digits 9-1-1 were selected--or why AT&T implemented the number in the first place.
Jan. 12, 1968
In Alabama, Bob Gallagher, president of the independent Alabama Telephone Co. reads an article in the Wall Street Journal revealing that AT&T intended to announce its emergency number plan that same day. Another WSJ article on Monday Jan. 15 documented AT&T's press conference that announced the selection of 911 as the emergency number. Interestingly, AT&T's concept was much broader than just a single emergency number--they foresaw a consolidation of public safety answering services, including the FBI and Secret Service. Also note there was never any mention in AT&T's description of the service about ANI or ALI service as a future upgrade of 911.
After reading the Wall Street Journal story, Gallagher decided he would beat AT&T to the punch and implement 911 first , somewhere within the Alabama Telephone Co. territory--it was his competitive spirit. He contacted Robert Fitzgerald, who was Inside State Plant Manager for ATC, who in turn identified Haleyville as the perfect site. Fitzgerald then designed the circuitry and directed the effort to implement 911 in the town, in the northwest portion of the state.
Fitzgerald worked with technicians Jimmy White, Glenn Johnston, Al Bush and Pete Gosa to quickly complete the necessary central office work and to install the red 911 phone.
Feb. 7, 1968
President Johnson sent a "Special Message to the Congress" with several proposals "to meet the challenge of crime to our society," all generally based on his Commission's recommendations. Among his proposals was one, "to develop methods to make the ordinary telephone more effective for summoning police aid..."
Feb. 9, 1968
Gallagher issued a press release announcing that 911 service will begin in Haleyville on Feb. 16.
2 p.m., Friday,
Feb. 16, 1968
Just 35 days after AT&T's announcement of 911, the first-ever 911 call is placed by Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite from Haleyville City Hall to U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill (Dem.) at the city's police station. Bevill reportedly answered the phone with "Hello." Attending with Fite was Haleyville mayor James Whitt. At the police station with Bevill was Gallagher and Alabama Public Service Commission director Eugene "Bull" Connor (formerly the Birmingham police chief involved in federal desegregation of the city's schools). Fitzgerald was at the ATC central office serving Haleyville, and actually observed the call pass through the switching gear, as the mechanical equipment clunked out "9-1-1." The phone used to answer the first 911 call, a bright red model, is now in a museum in Haleyville, while a duplicate phone is still in use at the police station. Some accounts of the event claim that, "Later, the two (Bevill and Fite) said they exchanged greetings, hung up and 'had coffee and doughnuts.'"
Feb. 22, 1968
Nome (Alaska) reportedly implemented their 911 system, after legislative support of 911 by then-U.S. Senator Ernest Gruening, formerly Governor of the Territory of Alaska before its statehood in 1959.
Feb. 27, 1968
FCC Defense Commissioner Lee Loevinger wrote an 11-page memo outlining the issues of implementing the 911 system, and sends it to the White House for review.
March 1, 1968
AT&T implemented 911 in Huntington (Ind.). Why Huntington? It was the home town of Democratic U.S. Rep. J. Edward Roush (served 1959-1969, 1971-1977), who sponsored legislation to adopt the three-digit number.
March 1, 1968
President Johnson's Commission on Civil Disturbance issued its report on riots that had occurred the previous year in several U.S. cities. Although the report focused on mostly social issues that led to the events, it also heightened awareness of the law enforcement response and the need for a single emergency number.
May 2, 1968
FBI Defense Comissioner Lee Loevinger sent a letter to the "State Industry Advisory Committees" that the FBI does not have any authority or responsibility for 911, although it was mentioned as a participating agency in earlier FCC documents. Apparently J. Edgar Hoover didn't want the Bureau receiving hundreds (back then!) of 911 calls reporting emergencies. [Check the other images and links on Andrew Dart's Web page about the Emergency Broadcast System--very interesting!]
late 1968 -
The town of Puyallup (Wash.) reportedly was the "first 911 center west of the Mississippi," and was a test site for the technology by AT&T. [But see Nome's claim of Feb. 22, 1968.]
The first California 911 system was installed in the city of Gustine in Merced County, in the state's central valley.
April 1, 1970
The first Texas 911 system was installed in the city of Odessa, according to a local newspaper article.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recommended that 911 be implemented nationwide.
The White House's Office of Telecommunications issued National Policy Bulletin Number 73-1, which recognized the benefits of 911 and encouraging its nationwide adoption. The statement also provided for the establishment of a Federal Information Center to assist jurisdictions in planning and implementing 911 systems. In part, the policy said, ""it is the policy of the Federal Government to encourage local authorities to adopt and establish 9-1-1 emergency telephone systems in all metropolitan areas and throughout the United States. Whenever practicable, efforts should be initiated in both urban and rural areas at the same time."
Alameda County (Calif.) was the first national pilot project for selective routing of 911 calls. Up to this point, 911 calls were routed according to "hard-wired" switching instructions. It became operational in mid-July, 1978. The original installation provided only ANI (not ALI) to the county's PSAPs.
The federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) funded a $150,000 program to test the cost and benefits of an Enhanced 911 program in Alameda County (N. Calif.).
Jan. 19, 1974
B911 service began in Sheboygan County (Wisc.), first in the state. Five lines answered at cord-type PBX board. ANI/ALI service implemented in 1986.
April 29, 1975
The U.S. Patent Office granted Patent 3,881,060 to Joseph Bernard Connell, Alfred Zarouni (NJ) as inventors, and Bell Telephone Laboratories Inc. (NJ) as assignee for, "An emergency reporting system for selectively inter-connecting ones of a plurality of telephone stations, each assigned a directory number, through the telephone communications switching network to designated emergency service centers." That is, the modern selective routing and ANI 911 system. Download (pdf) a copy of the patent and diagrams.
Chicago claims to have had "the first enhanced 911 system of any major city" in the United States.
Oct. 4, 1977
The U.S. Patent Office granted patent 4,052,569 for an Emergency Call Answering System to Robert M. Pirnie, III of Montgomery (Ala.) that, "provides specialized console controlled emergency call handling capabilities for 911 answer locations. Download (pdf) the patent here.
July 9, 1978
The federally-financed trial of the first selective routing E911 system went on-line Sunday in Alameda County (Calif.), across the bay from San Francisco. The first phase of the system provide ANI only, and not the phone number and location of the caller as later systems. [Thanks, Scott Hovey, Alameda County 911 Trial Project Director at the time, who provided a press release on the anniversary.]
Feb. 12, 1979
Dade County (Fla.) was the second agency to go live with selective routing, but providing only ANI (no ALI). The third selective routing E911 system was in St. Louis (Mo.) By the way, The definition of "Enhanced" 911, either now or at the time, makes comparing system features difficult, and also complicates determining which E911 system was "first."
AT&T began working on two full Enhanced 911 systems: one in Orange County (Fla.), which they called the "trial" system, and another in St. Louis (Mo.), which they called the "first application." These systems had the full array of features that we now associate with "Enhanced" 911: ANI, ALI, selective routing and selective transfer. The Orange County system was the first system to go live. [Thanks to software programmer Bill Milam for this info.]
Dr. Phil Shaenman, head of the U.S. Fire Administration's research department, authored a paper explaining that children should be taught to dial "nine-one-one," and not "nine-eleven." He pointed out that a child's conceptual abilities prevent them from recognizing the difference between "11" and "1-1."
The metro Minneapolis-St. Paul area implemented an E911 system that was reportedly the first multi-county Enhanced system in the country. It served seven surrounding counties.
July 23, 1990
College student Craig Neidorf went on trial for publishing an allegedly confidential 911 document downloaded by a hacker from a BellSouth computer system. After four days of testimony, all charges are dropped against him.
Alabama Gov. Guy Hunt issued Proclamation for Emergency Personnel Day in honor of Haleyville's accomplisment as the first 911 system in the nation.
Web master Nick Lawrence petitioned Internet administrators to register several all-number Web domains--previously an address had to contain at least one or more alphabetic characters. Lawrence succeeds and is issued 911.com, which is now operated at "911 Crime Tippers." He was also issued 411.com, 611.com and many others.
Dec. 12, 1995
U.S. Patent Office granted patent 5,474,484 for911 training doll (male and female) to Julie A. Lemelle, California Storybook Publishing, (Calif.). Download (pdf) the patent here.
Jan. 15, 1996
Swedish telephone system hacker called from London, made multiple, simultaneous 911 calls to various west-central Florida PSAPs, tying up their trunks for legitimate callers. He is caught and prosecuted.
Feb. 4, 1997
Australia completed Enhanced 000 service when it converts the Northern Territories to the service, which sends calling line identification (CLI) and service address to the emergency operator.
March 31, 1998
According to NENA, the first Phase I system (wireless calls display caller's phone number and address of receiving antenna tower) in the U.S. was in Allen County (Ind.), involving wireless carrier Centennial Communications, location company XYPOINT, and phone provider GTE Network Services.
May 27, 1999
Rep. Robert Anderholt (R-Ala.) honored Haleyville in the U.S. Congress for the nation's for 911 system. [Congressional Record]
October 26, 1999
President Clinton signed Senate Bill 800, which designates 911 as the nationwide emergency telephone number.
April 3, 2000
The so-called "bat.chode" virus is unleased by an unknown hacker; is spread by e-mail and instructs computer to dial 911 on any connected modem. The hacker is never ID'd, but no PSAPs report being affected by false calls.
Oct. 20, 2001
St. Clair County (Ill.) was the first comm center in the country to provide Phase II wireless E911 service, but only for Verizon Wireless customers. Lake County (Ind.) began Phase II service shortly after that, and the state of Rhode Island 911 began state-wide Phase II on Dec. 21, 2001 from Sprint PCS customers with assisted-GPS handsets.
Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman issued updated Commendation for the team that conceived of and implemented the nation's first 911 system in Haleyville.
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