In the earliest days of telephone technology, prior to the development of the rotary dial telephone, all telephone calls were operator-assisted. To place a call, the caller was required to pick up the telephone receiver and wait for the telephone operator to answer with "Number please?" They would then ask to be connected to the number they wished to call, and the operator would make the required connection manually, by means of a switchboard. In an emergency, the caller might simply say "Get me the police", "I want to report a fire", or "I need an ambulance/doctor". It was usually not necessary to ask for any of these services by number, even in large cities. Indeed, until the ability to dial a phone number came into widespread use in the 1950s (it had existed in limited form since the 1920s), telephone users could not place calls without operator assistance. During the period when an operator was always involved in placing a phone call, the operator instantly knew the calling party's number, even if the caller could not stay on the line, by simply looking at the number above the line jack of the calling party. In smaller centers, telephone operators frequently went the extra mile by making sure they knew the locations of local doctors, vets, law enforcement personnel, and even private citizens who were willing or able to help in an emergency. Frequently, the operator would activate the town's fire alarm, and acted as an informational clearinghouse when an emergency such as a fire occurred. When North American cities and towns began to convert to rotary dial or "automatic" telephone service, many people were concerned about the loss of the personalized service that had been provided by local operators. This problem was partially solved by telling people to dial "0" for the local assistance operator, if they did not know the Fire or Police Department's full number.
In many cases, the local emergency services would attempt to obtain telephone numbers that were easy for the public to remember. Many fire departments, for example, would attempt to obtain an emergency telephone line with a number ending in "3-4-7-3", which spelled the word "Fire" on the corresponding letters of the rotary telephone dial. In some areas (especially during the time when local numbers could be reached by dialing only the last five digits), picking up the phone, dialing one's own local exchange prefix then "F-I-R-E" would ring the nearest fire station.
Some cities made early attempts at a centralized emergency number, using a conventional telephone number. In Toronto, Canada, for example, the Metropolitan Toronto Police communications bureau attempted to promote their emergency number "Empire" 1-1111, or "361-1111", for use in all emergencies (Empire was the name for the exchange "3-6"; all telephone exchanges at the time had corresponding names). The rationale was that the abbreviation of the Empire exchange in common usage, "EM", corresponded to the first two letters of the word "emergency" and that the caller only had to remember the number "1" beyond that. This was never widely accepted, in that the City's fourteen local fire departments continued to tell the public to call them directly and the service never actually included ambulances, which in those days were considered a private transportation service. This was further complicated by the fact that the numbers changed by municipality, and the emergency number and emergency services on one side of a street might be completely different from the other side if the street was a municipal boundary. When a caller was uncertain of his or her exact location, emergency responses could be delayed, and so, for most people, it was simply easier to rely upon the telephone operator to make the connections. The efforts of telephone companies to publicize "Dial '0' for Emergencies" were ultimately abandoned in the face of company staffing and liability concerns, but not before generations of school children were taught to "dial 0 in case of emergency", just as they are currently taught to dial 9-1-1. This situation of unclear emergency telephone numbers would continue, in most places in North America, into the early 1980s. In some locales, the problem persists to this day.
The first known experiment with a national emergency telephone number occurred in the United Kingdom in 1937, using the number 999. The first city in North America to use a central emergency number (in 1959) was the Canadian city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, which instituted the change at the urging of Stephen Juba, mayor of Winnipeg at the time. Winnipeg initially used 999 as the emergency number, but switched numbers when 9-1-1 was proposed by the United States. In the United States, the push for the development of a nationwide American emergency telephone number came in 1957 when the National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended that a single number be used for reporting fires. In 1967, the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended the creation of a single number that could be used nationwide for reporting emergencies. The burden then fell on the Federal Communications Commission, which then met with AT&T in November, 1967 in order to come up with a solution.
In 1968, a solution was agreed upon. AT&T chose to implement the concept, but with its unique emergency number, 9-1-1, which was brief, easy to remember, dialed easily, and worked well with the phone systems in place at the time. How the number 9-1-1 itself was decided upon is not well known and is subject to much speculation by the general public. However, many assert that the number 9-1-1 was chosen to be similar to the numbers 2-1-1 (long distance), 4-1-1 ("information" or directory assistance), and 6-1-1 (repair service), which had already been in use by AT&T since the 1920s.
Another consideration is that most phones of the time used the pulse dialing system, which could be misdirected if the dial did not spin freely, either from sticky mechanism or a user keeping the finger in the dial. Using 9-1-1 forced the user to remove the dialing finger after the first number (whether using pulse or DTMF dialing) and go to the opposite end of the dial or keypad, thus reducing both accidental failure to dial the number and accidental dialing of the emergency number. Accidental dialing of 9-1-1 has become an increasing problem, as an increasing number of cellular phones are carried in pockets, purses or other places where objects may rest against the keys and repeatedly press them.
Not all such N11 numbers are common throughout the telephone systems of North America. Some of the designated services provided by these numbers are regional, and there are significant differences in number allocation between Canada and the United States; only 4-1-1 and 9-1-1 are universally used. In addition, because it was important to ensure that the emergency number was not dialed accidentally, 9-1-1 made sense because the numbers "9" and "1" were on opposite ends of a phone's rotary dial. Furthermore, the North American Numbering Plan in use at the time established rules for which numbers could be used for area codes and exchanges. At the time, the middle digit of an area code had to be either a 0 or 1, and the second digit of an exchange could not be a 0 or 1. At the telephone switching station, the second dialed digit was used to determine if the number was long distance or local. If the number had a 0 or 1 as the second digit, it was long distance, if it had any other digit, it was a local call. Thus, since the number 9-1-1 was detected by the switching equipment as a special number, it could be routed appropriately. Also, since 9-1-1 was a unique number, never having been used as an area code or service code (although at one point GTE used test numbers such as 11911), it could fit into the existent phone system easily. AT&T announced the selection of 9-1-1 as their choice of the three-digit emergency number at a press conference in the Washington (DC) office of Indiana Rep. J. Edward Roush, who had championed Congressional support of a single emergency number.
Soon after, in Alabama, Bob Gallagher, then-president of the independent Alabama Telephone Company (ATC), read an article in The Wall Street Journal from January 15, 1968, which reported the AT&T 9-1-1 announcement. Gallagher's competitive spirit motivated him to beat AT&T to the punch by being the first to implement the 9-1-1 service. In need of a suitable spot within his company's territory to implement 9-1-1, he contacted Robert Fitzgerald, who was Inside State Plant Manager for ATC. Fitzgerald recommended Haleyville, Alabama as the prime site. Gallagher later issued a press release announcing that 9-1-1 service would begin in Haleyville on February 16, 1968. Fitzgerald designed the circuitry, and with the assistance of technicians Jimmy White, Glenn Johnston, Al Bush and Pete Gosa, they quickly completed the central office work and installation. Just 35 days after AT&T's announcement, on February 16, 1968, the first-ever 9-1-1 call was placed by Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite, from Haleyville City Hall, to U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill, at the city's police station. Bevill reportedly answered the phone with "Hello". At the City Hall with Fite was Haleyville mayor James Whitt; at the police station with Bevill were Gallagher and Alabama Public Service Commission director Eugene "Bull" Connor. 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 9-1-1 call, a bright red model, is now in a museum in Haleyville, while a duplicate phone is still in use at the police station.
In 1968, 9-1-1 became the national emergency number for the United States. In theory at least, calling this single number provided a caller access to police, fire and ambulance services, through what would become known as a common Public-safety answering point (PSAP). The number itself, however, did not become widely known until the 1970s, and many municipalities did not have 9-1-1 service until well into the 1980s. Conversion to 9-1-1 in Canada began in 1972 and now virtually all areas, except for some rural areas, are now using 9-1-1. Each year, Canadians make 12 million calls to 9-1-1.
In September 2012, AT&T announced an experimental trial establishing a texting service to 9-1-1, in the State of Tennessee.
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