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February 16, 1968: First 911 call

Image: Unsplash

It’s tough to imagine a time before having the option to just dial three digits when you needed immediate emergency assistance. However, it wasn’t until 1968 that 911 became available for anyone who needed police or firefighters to arrive as soon as possible. Callers were expected to either know or have the phone number for each department they might need handy, in case they needed to call. This may have been feasible in a small town with a single police and fire department, but the larger the city, the more numbers there were to keep straight. 

According to Gizmodo, the National Fire Chief’s Association came up with then idea of a national emergency number all the way back in 1957, however, it wasn’t enacted until over a decade later. A report to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement brought up the plan to ensure that police departments had two phone lines as well, for emergency and non-emergency situations, to ensure someone who needed immediate assistance wouldn’t be stuck on hold. The numbers 9-1-1 were chosen because they (well, two of them, anyway) could be dialed in quick succession on a rotary phone.

What got the ball rolling on a plan that was in the works for a decade? According to PBS, the infamous Kitty Genovese story played a huge role in determining that a quick and convenient way to reach law enforcement was a necessity. In 1964, 28-year old Genovese was stabbed a mere hundred feet from her apartment. She cried for help and her attacker ran away, only to return a few minutes later to finish the job as she attempted to get into her building. She ended up dying in the stairwell, despite the fact that 38 people admitted to hearing her screams. Though this story is typically brought up in discussions about human apathy, the fact was, if these people were able to just dial three memorized digits, they may have bothered to do so.

The first 911 call was made in Haleyville, Alabama, and the city is pretty proud of it. In fact, each year the city celebrates it with the Haleyville 9-1-1 Festival with live music, a 5K and plenty of food. While this might seem morbid, the first 911 call wasn’t an emergency call - it was a test call from Rankin Fite, the speaker of the Alabama House and Tom Bevill, now a Democratic U.S. Representative answered.

Ten years after the establishment of the emergency number, about 26 percent of the country was able to be immediately connected with their local emergency services, and in 1989, 50 percent of America was covered. In an effort to spread the word, CBS planned a special called Rescue 911, which would highlight emergency calls to 911, hosted by William Shatner. The show ended up being a hit that lasted 7 seasons, and by the end of the ‘90s, 93 percent of America had access to the number. Now, 99-percent of the country can call 911 when they need it.

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