How Did “911″ Become The Emergency Call Number in North America?

Sarah Stone 17
Kaiden asks: Why is 9-1-1 the emergency call number?

911Before the 1960s, the United States didn’t have one universal phone number for Americans to call if they needed help from the police or fire department. Callers simply had to know the phone number for each department in the area they were currently in. In the case of large cities, there were often multiple police and fire departments covering different areas. Los Angeles, for example, had fifty different police departments and just as many phone numbers. Telephone operators would usually be left to direct emergency calls if the caller wasn’t sure which department or phone number they needed. Oftentimes there would be further delays upon getting the police or fire department on the line if the clerks who answered the phone were busy with another caller. Needless to say, this system wasn’t optimized to get emergency help where it needed to go very quickly.

To solve this problem, the National Fire Chief’s Association suggested a national emergency phone number in 1957. But it wasn’t until 1967 that President Lyndon B. Johnson helped get the ball rolling. A report to President Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice suggested that a single telephone number should be designated for callers to use in emergencies nationwide, or at least in major cities. The report also recommended that police departments have two phone lines: one for emergencies and another for regular business calls. That way callers looking to report an emergency wouldn’t be stuck on hold while the clerk helped someone who was simply looking for information.

To make this universal emergency number a reality, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)  partnered with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (also known as AT&T) in late 1967 to figure out what the number should be. After mulling it over, AT&T proposed in 1968 that the numbers 9-1-1 should make up the new universal emergency phone number.

Why the numbers 9-1-1 specifically? Simply put, the phone number 9-1-1 is short, easy to remember, and can be dialed relatively quickly given the few digits. This was particularly important in old-style rotary/pulse-dialing phones, which were still popular when the 9-1-1 system was first implemented. (The touch-tone phone wasn’t first widely introduced until 1963 and took a few decades to completely supplant rotary phones.)  In addition, the fact that it was only three digits meant the number could easily be distinguished from other, normal phone numbers in AT&T’s internal system and routed to a special location without too many changes to the AT&T network. (A few years earlier, AT&T had implemented their 6-1-1 and 4-1-1 numbers, so recommending 9-1-1 made this a relatively simple upgrade for them.)

Congress supported AT&T’s proposal for 9-1-1 as the national emergency number and passed legislation to that affect. In order to make things fair for telephone companies that needed to update their equipment and offices in order to handle the new 9-1-1 call system, the Bell System policy was created. The policy merged the costs of improvements into the basic rates that telephone companies charged their customers.

Just over ten years after Congress established 9-1-1 as the country’s universal emergency phone number, approximately 26% of United States citizens could dial 9-1-1 and be connected with their local emergency services. It might surprise you to learn that even just 25 years ago, in 1989, that number had risen only to 50%. However, just a decade after that, it rose to 93% of the country. Today, approximately 99% of people in the United States have access to the 9-1-1 emergency phone number system.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Great Britain was the first country to establish a universal emergency number (999) in 1937. It was established after five people died in a fire.
  • America’s first emergency system that used 9-1-1 was in Haleyville, Alabama, and the country’s first 9-1-1 call was made there on February 16, 1968. The person who placed the call was Senator Rankin Fite.  The person who answered it was U.S. Representative Tom Beville who was waiting at the Haleyville police department for the call. Nome, Alaska, established the country’s second 9-1-1 emergency system only a few weeks after Haleyville.
  • 9-1-1 is now international thanks to Canada adopting the number as its emergency number.
  • Originally, the 9-1-1 system based its location routing on the telephone number the person was calling from.  This proved to be a poor system as many times municipal boundaries and telephone exchange boundaries aren’t the same, so calls weren’t always perfectly routed.  To fix this, Enhanced 9-1-1 was introduced, which used addresses, rather than phone numbers for routing 9-1-1 calls.
  • Cell and VoIP phones have introduced some new problems to the old 9-1-1 and Enhanced 9-1-1 system, namely trying to figure out where the person in question is making the phone call from. For cell phones, the FCC requires very strict location parameters either via GPS tracking of the cell phone or by cell network location. In the former case, it needs to be accurate to within 150 meters for a minimum of 90% of the 9-1-1 calls and within 50 meters for a minimum of 67% of the calls.  In the latter network location case, it needs to be accurate to within 300 meters for 90% of the calls and 100 meters for 67% of the calls.  It is expected that over time the FCC will continue to require these systems to be more and more accurate.
  • Beyond these types of upgrades to the system, a shift to cell phone usage has introduced the possibility of texting 9-1-1 to receive help. While the system is still being rolled out, many carriers such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon now support this and it is expected that all will support it by December 31, 2014.  To get around the problem of the individual sending the text knowing whether the texting 9-1-1 system is available in their area, if you send one where this isn’t available yet, you should receive an automatic response text message telling you it’s not available.
  • Other “N-1-1″ numbers include 2-1-1: which is for community services information; 3-1-1 for non-emergency municipal government services; 4-1-1: directory assistance; 5-1-1: traffic information and non-emergency police services; 6-1-1: telephone company customer service; 7-1-1: Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD) relay; 8-1-1: underground public utility services.

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17 Comments »

  1. Tony K. July 7, 2014 at 8:07 am - Reply

    In Britain it is “999″ as you said, but Europe uses “119″ – I wonder if the chose that number to be different to America?

    I believe America could not use “119″ as 3-digit numbers beginning with “1″ were used by the phone companies for certain services at the time and that was why “911″ was chosen.

    It would be interesting to find out if Britain simply never considered how long a rotary phone took to dial “999″ in an emergency, or did their phone service already use the shorter 3 digit numbers for other things?

    Britain now has international recognition of Emergency numbers, so if you are visiting there, you can dial “999″, “119″ or “911″ and all will put you through to an operator who will ask you “Which emergency service do you require?” (Fire, Police, Ambulance or Coast Guard).

    • Wootster July 9, 2014 at 7:56 am - Reply

      999 was chosen in the UK as it was the shortest time for the dial to rotate back and so could be dialed much quicker on rotary phones.

      112 is the standard emergency number in Europe, 119 has never been used in any major European country.

      • Howard Blair July 10, 2014 at 8:44 am - Reply

        Wrong. 9 is the second-*longest* time to rotate back, after 0. The number 1 is the one closest to the “stop” on a rotary phone.

        • Wootster July 10, 2014 at 8:47 am - Reply

          Actually it depends on the country you are in. In the UK 9 is the shortest to rotate back. As is the same in New Zealand and several other countries.

          • Wootster July 10, 2014 at 8:48 am -

            Sorry meant to put that the reason New Zealand has 111 is because it has the numbers listed in the reverse order to the UK

          • Tom B. July 10, 2014 at 12:29 pm -

            No it isn’t…

            On the old rotary dials, dialing “9″ sent 9 pulses back to the exchange. Only a “0″ took longer to dial and to return back – The reason being that you cannot “send zero pulses”, so “0″ actually sent 10 pulses back.

            “999″ was chosen as the old rotary dials had a metal finger stop. The “9″ hole in the dial was right next to the stop and so the “9″ hole could easily be found by a blind or limited-sight person, in the dark or a smoke-filled room by feeling for the stop.

  2. SG July 7, 2014 at 7:55 pm - Reply

    No mention of 112 which can be dialled from any GSM cell phone in more than 80 countries?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/112_(emergency_telephone_number)

  3. Russell B July 8, 2014 at 9:44 am - Reply

    119 is also the emergency number in Japan. When my friends and I saw US movies and characters would shout, “Call 911″ we had a great conversation as to why ours and theirs were opposites.

  4. br July 8, 2014 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    The nice thing about using more than one digit in 9-1-1 as (opposed to 9-9-9) is that it helps to prevent butt-dialing and calls initiated by button-pushing toddlers fascinated by phones (they push the same button repeatedly)

    In fact, the toddler problem is the reason that Apple’s Steve Wozniak, a fan of the number 888-8888, had to give it up. He received too many nonsense calls.

    http://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/1lduxa/til_steve_wozniak_was_the_first_owner_of_the/

  5. dox July 8, 2014 at 4:35 pm - Reply

    I had to make use of 911 a couple weeks ago when on a Monday night an extremely drunk man wandered into my kitchen at 10pm.

    Luckily I got him out of the house without incident but he didnt want to leave the backyard stairs cause he wanted to come in and go to bed. the response time for the 911 call was just a few min.

  6. Michael Gill July 8, 2014 at 10:50 pm - Reply

    The people who are associated with all the emergency numbers that differ in different countries do an amazing job by putting their lives at risk on a daily basis to save others.
    ——————–
    000 – Australia
    111 – New Zealand
    999 – Other countries
    911 – As above
    ———————
    And if I may quote something similar
    “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
    - Winston Churchill
    ————————–
    Footnote:
    911 also reminds me of John 9:11 in the Bible

    • Michael Gill July 11, 2014 at 6:26 pm - Reply

      Let me make 1 final contribution to -Today I Found Out – and bring together a lot of interesting things:
      ——————————————————-
      000 = Australia emergency number
      ——————————————————-
      111 = New Zealand emergency number
      ——————————————————-
      222 = Genesis 2:22 = says women have 1 extra rib
      ——————————————————-
      333 = 9 = Michelangelo painted 9 sequences from the Book of Genesis in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The 7 and 8th panels are out of sequence = Read book The Sistine Secrets = Michelangelo’s forbidden messages in the heart of the Vatican
      ——————————————————-
      444 = Iran hostage crisis = 52 US citizens released after 444 days in 1979 = see movie Argo
      ——————————————————-
      555 = 15 = The number of years of Jesus life accounted for in the Bible = Year 1 to 12 then year 30 to 33 = no Biblical or historical records for 18 years
      ———————————————————
      666 = Revelation 13:18 = a man = Emperor Nero
      ———————————————————
      777 = The number 777 appears once in the Bible. The word priest appears 777 in the Bible
      ———————————————————
      888 = Jesus is his name in the New Testament = In the Old Testament his name coverts to 888
      ———————————————————
      999 = 27 = The number of Books in the New Testament – but they always bring the Book of Psalms and Proverbs into the New Testament = Psalm 22 is the end of Jesus. 999 is also the emergency numbers in a lot of other countries
      ——————————————————–
      911 = as above
      ———————————————————
      Numbers can be confusing but interesting at the same time for example = 1.618 v 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144 etc = the number 144 is very significant in the Bible and we also seem to learn our times table at school to only 12 = 12 x 12 = 144
      ——————————————————–
      Amen = 33

  7. Howard Blair July 10, 2014 at 8:43 am - Reply

    “…passed legislation to that affect.” *effect*; “affect” is a verb.

  8. derek August 4, 2014 at 8:11 pm - Reply

    The first North American city to have a central emergency number was Winnipeg. They adopted 999 as the number in 1957.

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