Before 9-1-1 was implemented for the first time in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968, and before rotary phones allowed the dialing of individual numbers, citizens would pick up their telephone receiver and wait for a telephone operator to answer “Number, please?” The citizen would then ask for help from the fire or police departments. People generally didn’t have a number to dial to get such help, but the operators knew where to connect the callers.
The first known experiment with a national emergency number was in the United Kingdom in 1937 using the numbers 9-9-9. The first city in North America to use an emergency number was Winnipeg, Manitoba, which initially adopted the U.K.’s 9-9-9 number, but switched to 9-1-1 after the United States adopted it.
In the United States, during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the operator would be the direct link to the emergency services and in some cities, set off the town fire alarm/notification siren. In the 1950s, rotary phones began to be more common and people could begin dialing the police or fire departments directly, if they new the number. But, since almost every department had a different number, citizens were educated to dial “0″ for “operator assistance” in getting in touch with emergency services.
In the United States, the push to develop a national emergency telephone number started in 1957 when the National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended that a single number be used for reporting fires. Unfortunately, it would take another 10 years before plans were implemented after the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended the creation of a single number that could be used nationwide. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was then tasked with the job of coming up with the number to dial.
In 1968 the solution was finalized in the U.S. and on February 16, 1968 in Haleyville, Alabama the first 9-1-1 call was placed by Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite, from the Haleyville City Hall to U.S. Rep Tom Bevill, at the city’s police station. Bevill reportedly answered the phone with “Hello.” 9-1-1 was adopted as the national emergency number for the United States and Public Safety Answering Points began to be constructed to handle emergency calls throughout the United States.
Widespread implementation of the number took several years, but today over 98% of the United States and Canada are covered by 9-1-1 service.