February 16 – First 9-1-1 Call!

Posted on February 16, 2017

Back in the long-ago days when telephones were common but still pretty darned new, every call had to go through an operator. You'd start a call by telling the operator the phone number you wanted to connect with -- but, if it was an emergency, you could tell the operator, "There's a fire!" or "Get me the police!" or "I want to report an accident with injuries -- they're going to need an ambulance, for sure."

However, when dial service became a thing, most people made most calls themselves. I remember that, when I was a kid, there was a brightly colored first page in the thick telephone book we always had, and all the emergency phone numbers for police, ambulance, and fire department were on that special page.

However, some bright person in the United Kingdom realized it would be helpful to have just one nationwide emergency phone number that everyone would know. You wouldn't have to waste precious seconds trying to get the phone book open to the first page -- or maybe even minutes, if the phone book wasn't where it was supposed to be. That was back in the 1937.

Some people in America thought it would work here, too, although Canada beat us out, instituting the emergency number "999" in 1957, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

In 1967, a U.S. government commission decided to create a nationwide emergency number, choosing the memorable 9-1-1. 

And it was on this date in 1968 that the first 9-1-1 call was placed!

Actually, it seemed to have been a ceremonial call rather than an emergency call. Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite was standing in City Hall in a town called Haleyville, Alabama. He called United States Representative Tom Bevill, who was in the town's police station -- and Bevill just answered the call with an ordinary "hello."

Soon, people realized that 9-1-1 should reach a public-safety answering point who could direct the call to police, fire, or ambulance services. I know that, nowadays, 9-1-1 operators say something like "9-1-1, what is the exact location of your emergency?"

Even though that first 9-1-1 call happened in 1968, it wasn't until the 70s that people really began to know about and use 9-1-1 (actually, in some places, 9-1-1 wasn't used until the 1980s). Canada decided to change its nationwide emergency number to 9-1-1, as well. And most British territories in the Caribbean use 9-1-1, too -- places like Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands. 

Did you know...?

  • Sometimes the 9-1-1 operator asks a lot of questions, and people get upset thinking that the call is taking too long -- they need help RIGHT NOW! ...But, actually, in most cases the emergency vehicles are already on their way, and the operator is trying to save time by getting important information while the helpers are en route. The operator can relay the information to the police, fire fighters, or medics who will then know exactly what to do when they arrive!
  • Since 2010, people in Tennessee can send text messages to 9-1-1. That seems incredibly important to me, because in many police situations, at least, it's important to be quiet while making a 9-1-1 call!
  • There are rules in many states that make it so that even phones that are disconnected can still dial 9-1-1. If a deactivated cell phone still has power, it can still make a 9-1-1 call. 
I was really lucky - we discovered our drier fire
when it was still tiny, and none of the clothes
were ruined. We even fixed the drier and kept
on using it!

I have only had to dial 9-1-1 one time, for a drier fire.

(This photo is NOT of my drier! ->)

The dispatcher (or operator) who answered my 9-1-1 call suggested that we do several things as we waited for the fire truck, and although I knew some of those things -- and had already done some of them, even -- I really appreciated hearing that I'd done the right thing! 

And I could not BELIEVE how fast the fire fighters arrived. It was truly amazing.  

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