The History of 9-1-1

How does someone summon firefighters to battle a blaze? They locate a phone and dial 9-1-1, but it wasn’t always possible to do this.

For many years someone screamed “Fire!” and bystanders responded. Then night watchmen and town criers on duty sounded the alarm. Often church bells or the bells of the town hall building would chime to alert the community to an emergency.

In 1852, the first fire alarm telegraph system was installed in Boston. Invented by William F. Channing, the system consisted of three box circuits, forty boxes, sixteen alarm bells and a crude central office apparatus. John Nelson Gamewell envisioned the potential fire alarm boxes had and in a short time cornered 95% of the market for the alarm systems. To reduce false alarms many communities locked the fireboxes. Nearby merchants or residents held keys to the boxes. Valuable time was wasted while the key was located. In 1875, Charles Tooker tried to address this difficulty. He patented a “keyless” fire alarm box, which rang a loud bell when the door was opened. However, using this box required a two-step process. Opening the box and then pulling the hook located inside to transmit the alarm. In the heat of the moment many people mistook the sound emitted when they opened the door as all that was needed to communicate a fire existed. Thus, many lives and buildings were lost due to this false assumption.

The invention of the telephone in 1876 created a new avenue for communication. As time progressed each community issued a separate seven-digit phone number for the public service agencies including the police, fire department and local hospital. In some metropolitan areas there might be over 200 numbers for public agencies. Frequently, people simply dialed “0” to contact the operator but confusion often caused delays as the operator sought to contact the appropriate agency.

In 1963, Perry Township Volunteer Fire Chief Conway was frustrated when the nearby Evansville, Indiana Fire Department received a call that the volunteer fire department was ready and able to perform. At that time in his area the telephone operators simply directed all calls to the Evansville Fire Department. Conway wanted to make everyone aware of the services of the Perry Township Volunteer Fire Department. He devised pressure-sensitive red fluorescent stickers with the emergency number for the fire department. These labels fit in telephone cradles. These were distributed to all residents and businesses in Perry Township. From then on the Perry Fire Department never failed to receive an alarm. Neighboring volunteer fire departments heard about the stickers and ordered their own. Soon Conway was advertising them in state and national fire publications. Orders poured in.

A universal phone number for emergencies was a concept that originated in Europe. In 1958, Congress requested a universal emergency phone number. Finally, in 1967, the United States the President’s Commission of Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice provided a recommendation for a universal emergency number. In 1968, The American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT & T) announced that 9-1-1 was available as a national emergency number. Emergency calls would no longer be answered by telephone operators but would be transferred to public safety agencies.

9-1-1 was developed to increase public access to the police, fire and medical emergency services. Local governments began implementing the use of 9-1-1 in 1968. The communities worked with their telephone companies to establish the use of the emergency number in their area.

The first 9-1-1 call was made in 1968 in Haleyville, Alabama one week after the United States Congress authorized 9-1-1 as the national emergency number. Bob Gallagher, President of the Alabama Telephone Company stated, “My father, John Gallagher, was Fire Chief in Huntington, WV in 1968. He was the motivation for my desire to be first.” Haleyville, a community of 4,500 residents, was selected by the small independent phone company because its existing equipment could be more easily converted to serve the emergency line. Robert Fitzgerald, an inside plant manager for this company, designed the circuitry for the first 911 system and participated in its installation. According to Gallagher, Bill Frey served as the local manager of the Haleyville office in 1968 but he was not involved in any part of the 911 conversion. Gallagher made all the arrangements with the officials for the first call. On February 16, 1968, Rankin Fite, the Alabama Speaker of the House made a 9-1-1 call to U. S. Representative Tom Bevill. Bevill picked up the bright red phone at the police station and answered the call. The two greeted each other, hung up and “had coffee and doughnuts.”

Within three years, the first city to undertake the use of 9-1-1 was New York City. In 1972, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recommended that 9-1-1 should be put into operation nationwide. While 9-1-1 was a phone number available nationwide individual communities responded to it. Until a community supervised 9-1-1 in their area the use of the number was unavailable. In 1977, 600 systems were using 9-1-1 and nearly 100 new services were being added annually. However, the majority of the residents with access to 9-1-1 lived in urban areas and only 30% of the total U.S. population could summon help by dialing 9-1-1. In 1994, 75% of the population could dial 9-1-1 to seek help.

The goal now is to provide enhanced 9-1-1 service. Enhanced service determines the telephone number and location of the caller. The first community with a fully enhanced 9-1-1 system was in Orange County, Florida. Their service was in operation in 1980.

Conway, W. Fred. Firefighting Lore. New Albany, IN: Fire Buff House, 1993. (155-157).
Credle, Melanie. "Recalling 911." The Herald-Sun (Durham, NC) 14 March, 1993: E+.
Gallagher, Bob. 911 History. Email to ffrs_assoc10. 21 August 2001.

Gallagher, Bob. 911 History. Email to ffrs_assoc10. 25 August 2001.
Jackie Dispatch 9-1-1 page (page not active as of August 2009)
Parker, Anita. "First 911 System Installed 25 Years Ago." The Times Record (Fayette, AL) 28 April 1993.
“World’s First 9-1-1 Call.”  Haleyville, AL-Feb 16, 1968.  29 Nov 2001.