The U.S. Gets Onboard With A National Number
On February 1, 1968, the first 9-1-1 call was made in the United States. The call, placed by Speaker of the Alabama House Representatives, Rankin Fite, was a critical step in the standardization of access to American emergency services. (It is believed that he made the call because the money in his re-election campaign fund had gotten dangerously low and he wanted to report this “emergency”)
The push to adopt a universal number for emergencies came at the request of the National Association of Fire Chiefs (their requests for more beer and more bagpipes having already been filled). A similar system was in use in the United Kingdom for decades, with 999 as the dedicated emergency number. It was time for the United States to get on board. Several high-profile crimes such as the Queens NY murder of Kitty Genovese had given the movement more urgency.
A collaborative effort between AT&T, The National Association of Fire Chiefs, a Presidential Commission and the FCC arrived at a plan to designate a national emergency number. They had to work out a simple to remember number that would work on a rotary phone and not be confused with already existing area codes. 9-1-1 fit the bill and was adopted.
Representative Fite’s call was just the first step in a national movement that took decades. The system went live to the public on March 1, 1968. By 1979 only 26% of communities had access to the system. It cost money to switch over and revamp local responses. By 1987, 50% of the United States had a 9-1-1 system up and running. Today 99% of the country is covered. 9-1-1 has become synonymous with the American first responder.