The date Feb. 16, 2018, rang in the 50th anniversary of our nation’s very first 911 call. As the Sarasota, Florida, sheriff’s office wrote on its social media page heralding 911’s birth, “Technology may have changed, but callers are our constant. Thank you to all those who serve so selflessly by picking up the phone on the worst day of people’s lives.”
The kudos given in that last line go to the country’s public safety dispatchers, who answer the call when trouble is brewing. Before my sworn police career commenced, I was one of those individuals hooked up to a headset and dispatch console, hearing horror on the daily — more on that later.
The official 911 rollout occurred in Haleyville, Alabama, and then spread to points across the United States until the entire nation was linked to emergency service provisions via a universal three-digit phone number.
The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) — also known as the 9-1-1 Association — chronicles all things 911. NENA’s “9-1-1 Origin & History” page dials in to where it all began:
- Congress backed AT&T’s proposal and passed legislation allowing use of only the numbers 911 when creating a single emergency calling service, thereby making 911 a standard emergency number nationwide. A Bell System policy was established to absorb the cost of central office modifications and any additions necessary to accommodate the 911 code as part of the general rate base.
- With Enhanced 911, or E911, local PSAPs [public-safety answering points] are responsible for paying network trunking costs according to tariffed rates, and for purchasing telephone answering equipment from the vendor of their choice.
- On Feb. 16, 1968, Sen. Rankin Fite completed the first 911 call made in the U.S. in Haleyville, Alabama. The serving telephone company was then Alabama Telephone Company. This Haleyville 911 system is still in operation today.
- On Feb. 22, 1968, Nome, Alaska, implemented 911 service.
- In March 1973, the White House’s Office of Telecommunications issued a national policy statement that recognized the benefits of 911, encouraged the nationwide adoption of 911, and provided for the establishment of a Federal Information Center to assist units of government in planning and implementation.
The crux of 911 was for a simple and easily remembered number used when anyone needed emergency help from among the police-fire-medical public safety assets.
To show you how good we’ve got it, a woman in Honduras explained how the advent of 911 started only three years ago in her nation. Lina Caraz said, “In my country it started like three years ago. Just with the police. Now FD is in 911. I am not sure about medics.”
Caraz elucidated how it was prior to her nation’s public safety jumping on the 911 bandwagon: “Before, we [had] to dial a landline phone for each agency.” By that, I assume she means physically dialing a long number individually for each of the public safety provisions. That’s time-consuming and more laborious when ease is more conducive and highly necessary. Therein are the benefits of our 50-year-old 911 system.
Today’s 911 infrastructure. Among the approximately 18,500 law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S., many are deemed “small” in size and scope; therefore, tax bases ill-afford PSAPs. How it generally works is this: The county’s larger government agency (usually the county police or sheriff) will receive calls and dispatch the smaller agencies’ cops and fire-rescue personnel for a contracted annual fee.
Albeit deemed a small agency by national (FBI) standards, my agency had healthy tax dole revenues to afford our own in-house PSAP. (In retrospect, I felt like the most inept human being when I took the PSAP seat and fielded 911 calls for the first time. There are no do-overs. There is no room for error. There is no pace-setting button, just in-your-face/ear humanity gone awry. Ultimately, it helped me be a better cop.)
When I started in public safety dispatching, E911 was implemented. E (for Enhanced 911) was engineered to route every 911 caller’s location to the most appropriate phone service answering point (PSAP).
Telecommunications towers dotting the American landscape receive a 911 caller’s signal and are engineered to transmit that call for service to the nearest PSAP. If the person calling 911 is in a jurisdiction other than where the actual emergency is transpiring (that happens frequently), the public safety dispatcher has to figure out with which other, of-jurisdiction PSAP the caller needs to connect.
Naturally, a PSAP in Portland, Oregon, or Anywhere, USA, is not going to have every single PSAP in the nation nor the capacity to easily transfer the call accordingly. That would be ideal, but we are not quite there yet — too monumental in scope. In such a case, the PSAP 911 operator takes all pertinent information and uses nonemergency phone lines to transfer information regarding the call for service. That receiving agency’s dispatchers then pick up the ball and send out their resources.
Notwithstanding the enormous sizes of some public safety communications centers in our nation, there are limitations. Despite “Enhanced 911” provisions enabling public safety assets to respond immediately, there is no national board that lights up every PSAP in our country.
Whether one uses soup cans and string or smoke signals or a message in a floating bottle or a verbose parrot, public safety will heed the call however it is received.
Believe it or not, our nation is not entirely 911 enabled. “Approximately 96 percent of the geographic US is covered by some type of 911,” NENA claims. That means that 4 percent of our progressive populace is without the ease of quick-tap dialing for emergency response.
That is hard to fathom, but I suppose those who deeply desire living off the grid fall into this category, likely where no infrastructure exists and that is the accepted (comfortable enough) norm. Nevertheless, whether one uses soup cans and string or smoke signals or a message in a floating bottle or a verbose parrot, public safety will heed the call however it is received.
911 users and abusers. In a nutshell, every single phone account in my city’s jurisdictional responsibility rang in to our communications center, whereby a public safety operator fielded the call: “911. What is your emergency?”
Sadly, that basic greeting at any PSAP is the norm not only because that is the sole intended purpose of 911’s existence … but also because some folks somehow find it okay to call the emergency number with nonemergent interests and curiosities.
Any public safety dispatcher can share with you countless stories of this person or that person calling 911 asking for the number to the local Pizza Hut or when the next city council meeting is scheduled or to report Cujo barking down the street. The term “911 abuse” is real. And that is why states have laws against callers dialing 911 with what they think is (ahem) urgent need-to-know inquiries. Typically, there is alcohol involved … and Captain Morgan did not dial 911.
Well … kinda.
In Florida, state statute 365.172 addresses 911 abusers and says in part: “Any person who accesses the number 911 for the purpose of making a false alarm or complaint or reporting false information that could result in the emergency response of any public safety agency; any person who knowingly uses or attempts to use such service for a purpose other than obtaining public safety assistance; or any person who knowingly uses or attempts to use such service in an effort to avoid any charge for service, commits a misdemeanor of the first degree … ” It goes on to add, “After being convicted of unauthorized use of such service four times, a person who continues to engage in such unauthorized use commits a felony of the third degree.”
In my law enforcement career, I’ve been on both sides of the coin wherein, callers played on 911 lines. As a dispatcher, I had to handle such nonsense while other 911 lines were blinking all over the console. Conversely, once sworn, I had the distinction of responding (per dispatcher declaring/recording 911 abuses), investigating, and arresting folks for such waste, thereby creating danger to public safety personnel. I never had a court appearance on any 911 abuse case, either — public safety telephone lines are all recorded and thus provide substantive, admissible evidence.
Quite often, false 911 calls originate at the fingertips of a child playing on the phone while parents or babysitters are who knows where. That could be called 50 years of chasing phantoms, too.
It must be said that our 911 system’s birthday is worthy of celebration akin to the under-heralded public safety dispatchers answering the call and sending help. I say they get to cut the cake.
Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher, and a writer. This OpsLens article is used by permission.