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The 911 Emergency System

Believe it or not, 9-1-1 was not designated as the “Universal Emergency Number” until 1968. Before this, people would call random places for emergency services. As you can imagine, this was often chaotic and not every emergency was being tended to properly.

Considering all the cities and towns that make up the United States, getting each and every one of them on the same page for an emergency system or code is quite difficult. Every city is different and before the 911 emergency system was put into place, they had to figure out their own way to work these things out.

For example, in 1946 Rosamund Reinhardt of New York attempted to call in a fire at a nearby apartment. She dialed “0” for the operator as it was the easiest number she knew. Because of the high volume of callers, her calls were constantly met with dropped lines. The time she wasted trying to call in the emergency resulted in the hallway becoming impassable because of all the smoke. Although she did survive, this shows just one of the many potential dangers of not having an emergency system in place.

Across the pond, in contrast, a three-digit emergency number (999) was in place as early as 1937 in London. The system was rather effective and run by the post office. Unfortunately, this took some time to reach the United States.

It was not that these emergency issues weren’t realized, the problem was simply figuring out how to implement and manage an effective system. For instance, the fire industry had concerns about how the telephone systems would work during emergencies since fire alarms relied on them. In the 1950s, some cities decided to install single-use physical telephones on city streets that would enable people to talk directly to the fire department should an emergency occur. As imagined, this led to many false alarms and controversy. But by the mid-1950s the International Association of Fire Chiefs began to make a case for a single, national telephone number for the public to call in case of an emergency. And thus began the move toward the 911 emergency system.

After much planning, it was in 1968 that the first 9-1-1 call was made in the United States. However, this emergency system did not work immediately after being put into motion, and some were hesitant to accept it initially.

In terms of funding, the Warren-911-Emergency Assistance Act was a California bill that was signed into law in 1973. The bill proposed a small surcharge on phone bills (a tax, if you will) in order to pay for the system. Its passing was significant in that it set the standard for similar laws and regulations across the nation.

In the same vein, The Johnson Foundation, named for Robert Wood Johnson II (whose father started Johnson & Johnson), played a major role in jumpstarting the 911 system. The foundation had launched a $15 million grant aimed to improve emergency services in rural areas, which, in turn, led more areas to pick up 911, or a similar centralized number. The Johnson Foundation continued to advocate for the growth of the 911 system, and since then, it is now widely accepted with the proper infrastructure to back it.

In 1999, Congress designated 911 the official emergency number, however, now the system would need to keep pace with the way we use our phones.

Since smartphones hit the market, they have been infamously problematic for emergency dispatchers. Although we would like to think that our advanced technologies would help dispatchers locate callers with smartphone GPS capabilities, it unfortunately makes it more difficult to pinpoint locations. People prefer sending text messages and even landlines are more likely to rely on VoIP than actual analog lines.

Sadly, 911 systems are mostly outdated and upgrades and overhauls for these systems are rather costly, let alone impair the quality of service.

The problems faced during the inception of 911 are similar to the ones we are facing now as technology continues to evolve. What are your thoughts or ideas on how we can improve the 911 system? Share with us on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest.

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The 911 Emergency System
Although universally accepted now, implementing the 911 emergency system was no simple feat. Learn about the history of the Universal Emergency Number.

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