You hear a window breaking, someone isn’t breathing, you’ve witnessed a serious car accident … you need help.
Fortunately, pretty much everywhere in the United States, you can dial 9-1-1 and be linked to an emergency communications center – a public-safety answering point (PSAP) – where you will be connected to the calm voice of a highly-trained professional who provides life-saving instruction and ensures that first responders arrive as quickly and safely as possible.
Up until the late 1960s, however, there was no centralized number in the United States for people to call in case of an emergency.
If you needed to contact the police or fire department, you had to remember and call a 7-digit number for the nearest station. There was no highly-trained call taker or dispatcher at the other end of the phone who could talk you through a medical emergency or warn responders of possible dangers en route or on scene.
February 16, 2018, commemorates the 50th anniversary of 9-1-1. Let’s take a look at the history of 9-1-1 in emergency communications, and glimpse what the future holds for this industry and the professionals who work in it.
In the 1800s
In the 1800s, most large cities used call boxes for beat officers to communicate with headquarters. Before the telephone was invented in 1875, these boxes contained specialized telegraph equipment that notified the station of a crime. By 1880 most departments had replaced the telegraphs with telephones.
Britain implemented the first known three-digit emergency telephone system. Today, more than 200 countries and dependencies have universal three-digit emergency numbers.
The development of the APCO Ten Codes for police began in 1937 to reduce use of speech on the radio at a time when police radio channels were limited. Preceding each code with “ten-” gave the radio transmitter time to reach full power. An APCO Bulletin from January 1940 included a standardized set of ten codes. The Ten Codes (or Signals) were included in APCO Project 2 (1967) and revised in APCO Project 14 (1974).
World War II
Radio manufacturers were experimenting with two-way police radios prior to WWII, but then shifted to war production and perfected the functionality with extensive use by air and ground troops.
In 1957, the National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended that a single three-digit number be used to report fires in the United States.
On March 16, 1964, 38 people heard the cries of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese as she was attacked and killed in New York City, but not a single witness called to report the incident. This case is often considered to be one of the driving forces for the 9-1-1 call system.
In June 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice issued a report recommending that a “single number should be established” nationwide for reporting emergency situations.
Later that year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) met with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), which at the time operated nearly all telephone connections in the U.S., to find a means to quickly implement a universal emergency number.
January 12, 1968
AT&T designated 9-1-1 as a universal emergency number.
February 16, 1968
The first-ever 9-1-1 call was placed in Haleyville, Alabama, by Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite from Haleyville City Hall to U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill at the city’s police station. The bright red phone used to answer the first 9-1-1 call is now in a museum in Haleyville, while a duplicate phone is still in use at the police station.
The 9-1-1 Dispatcher Then
My story started in an 8×12-foot room, with a radio console, microphone and five-line push-button phone, where I kept handwritten radio logs, and time-stamped incident cards with received, dispatched, arrival and completion times.
~ Brent Lee, Past President, APCO International
The FCC recommended that the number be implemented nationwide.
The White House Office of Telecommunications issued a national policy statement recognizing the benefits of 9-1-1, encouraging the nationwide adoption of 9-1-1 and providing for the establishment of a Federal Information Center to assist units of government in planning and implementation.
In the early 70’s, AT&T began developing specialized 9-1-1 features, including selective routing, automatic location identification (ALI) and automatic number identification (ANI), which came to be known as enhanced 9-1-1.
By the end of 1976, 9-1-1 was serving about 17% of the U.S. population.
Orange County, Florida, went live with enhanced 9-1-1 including selective routing, ALI, ANI and selective transfer.
By 1987, 9-1-1 was available to about 50% of the U.S. population.
The public safety community developed an interoperable standards approach, known as Project 25, that would enable law enforcement, fire, emergency medical and other responders using different systems to talk directly via two-way radio.
In the 1990s
From the late 1990s to the present, the way people communicate changed dramatically, from wired telephones limited to homes and offices to multi-featured smartphones that take pictures and videos and allow people to send text messages as well as place calls. This created challenges for the industry since cell phones weren’t equipped with ANI and ALI like residential phones were.
The FCC issued the Wireless Enhanced 911 Rules, which established rules for providing location information from wireless calls to 9-1-1. It ordered wireless carriers to provide the service in two phases. Under Phase I, wireless carriers had to deliver the 9-1-1 caller’s voice and originating cell site location to the most appropriate PSAP. Under Phase II, carriers had to provide more accurate location information of callers, but location estimates could be off by hundreds of meters or more.
October 26, 1999
President Clinton signed the Public Safety Act of 1999 that officially established 9-1-1 as the nation’s emergency calling number.
By the end of 1999, 9-1-1 services were available to 93% of the U.S. population.
Black Hawk County, Iowa, became the first area to accept text messages to 9-1-1.
February 22, 2012
The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was created by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. FirstNet is responsible for implementing a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network for use by first responders and public safety communications professionals.
January 29, 2015
By 2014, about 70% of 9-1-1 calls came from cell phones, but locating wireless 9-1-1 callers, especially those inside buildings, continued to present a challenge. The FCC adopted new rules for improving location accuracy for wireless 9-1-1 calls that increased transparency and aimed at obtaining a “dispatchable location” for indoor 9-1-1 calls.
By 2017, some jurisdictions in nearly all states offered SMS-based text-to-911 messaging. In addition to serving as a vital tool for the deaf and hard of hearing community, text-to-911 from cell phones has become an important alternative for victims of domestic violence and suicidal persons who are not comfortable making a voice call to connect with public safety telecommunicators.
APCO published “Broadband Implications for the PSAP,” a Project 43 Initiative. The report included in-depth findings and recommendations for the future in the areas of operations, governance, cybersecurity, technology, training and workforce.
December 28, 2017
FirstNet announced that all 50 states, Washington, DC, and two U.S. territories had accepted FirstNet’s proposed radio access network buildout plans, opting in to the first nationwide public safety broadband network.
The Public Safety Telecommunicator Today
Today, working as a public safety telecommunicator requires a completely different professional skillset than that required in the 1970s.
The future holds great promise for public safety communications for communities and telecommunicators across the country to benefit from seamlessly interoperable Next Generation 9-1-1 services. Fully interconnected vehicle and patient sensors, cognitive systems in the PSAP, FirstNet-based broadband services to the responders, and the availability of almost any needed service at the touch of a button are possible.