The History of 9-1-1

Cartoon image of phone and person with 911

By: Alice Johnson

The idea of having a nationwide number to call for help during emergencies began almost 70 years ago. Research, studies and updates to technology made that idea a reality, and those working in public safety, especially the telecommunicators who answer emergency calls, helped to make 9-1-1 the number in the United States for police, fire, and ambulance services.

The Early Years

The suggestion and idea for one telephone number to be available nationwide for anyone to call and reach public safety assistance was started with a recommendation from the National Association of Fire Chiefs in 1957. They thought it would be beneficial to have a universal number for reporting fires. Nearly a decade later, the National Academy of Sciences published a study highlighting how accidental deaths and injuries, specifically from motor vehicle crashes, were at epidemic levels in the mid-1960s. The report urged a study of the feasibility of creating one nationwide telephone number to call for an ambulance. Following the report, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice convened and recommended creating a universal telephone number to report emergencies.

The first steps to creating a universal emergency number in the United States began with a 1967 meeting between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the commercial telecommunications company AT&T. Within a year, AT&T announced the establishment of 9-1-1 as the emergency number. Congressional legislation backed the creation of 9-1-1, and the private communications company used the general base rate from telephone bills to make central office changes to accommodate the 9-1-1 code.

The first 9-1-1 call was made from Haleyville, Alabama, on February 16, 1968, and within a week, Nome, Alaska, began accepting 9-1-1 calls. As other cities added 9-1-1 service, in 1973, the White House issued a national policy statement recognizing the benefits of the universal number to call for emergencies and urging jurisdictions nationwide to adopt 9-1-1. The early to mid-1970s saw a growth of jurisdictions adding 9-1-1 service, and a pilot program in California used selective call routing as part of their 9-1-1 telecommunications configuration, paving the way to enhanced 9-1-1 services in later years.

* According to NENA, “as of February 2021, the United States has 5,748 primary and secondary PSAPs throughout 3,135 counties, which include parishes, independent cities, boroughs and Census areas.”

  •  99.4% PSAPs have some Phase I
  •  99.2% PSAPs have some Phase II
  •  97.8% Counties have some Phase I
  • 97.3% Counties have some Phase II
  • 98.9% Population have some Phase I
  •  98.9% Population have some Phase I

“The term `some’ means that some or all wireless carriers have implemented either Phase I or Phase II service in the County or the PSAPs. In order for any carrier to provide service, the County or PSAP must be capable of receiving the service. In most cases, all carriers are implemented in a County or PSAP, but one or more may be in the process of completing the implementation.”

*The above terms and data have been taken from NENA

Technology and Legislative Impacts on 9-1-1

  • Basic 9-1-1—the connection of a call to a public safety answering point (PSAP).
  • Enhanced 9-1-1 (E911) —the inclusion of Automatic Number Identification (ANI) and Automatic Location Identification (ALI) with the 9-1-1 call.
  • NG911—Next Generation 9-1-1, using a more robust and efficient IP-based technology for routing 9-1-1 calls.
  • Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999—To promote the expansion of wireless 9-1-1 service and to support states in upgrading 9-1-1 capabilities and technologies.
  • ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004—Established a National E9-1-1 Implementation and Coordination Office (ICO). The ICO coordinates 9-1-1 and E9-1-1 services and ensures that funds collected for 9-1-1 services through telecommunications companies are only spent on 9-1-1 services.
  • Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007— Set aside monies for a Homeland Security Grant program to support PSAPs, authorize Emergency Management Performance Grants to be used for the construction of Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs), and create an interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program.
  • New and Emerging Technologies 911 Improvement Act of 2008 (NET 911 Act)—This act requires the FCC to submit a report to Congress annually, including the totals for collecting and distributing 9-1-1 fees and charges by US state. The review ensures that states only use the 9-1-1 funds collected to support and improve 9-1-1 services.
  • Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (“Farm Bill”) —This section of the Farm Bill allows the Secretary of Agriculture to make loans for jurisdictions to improve 9-1-1.
  • Kari’s Law—The FCC adopted this law in August 2019, requiring multi-line telephone systems (MLTS) to allow users to dial 9-1-1 directly without dialing an internal number, such as 9, to reach an outside line. Kari’s Law also requires MLTS to notify a central location, such as a lobby desk or security office, when a 9-1-1 call is made from within the building.
  • RAY BAUM’s Act—Rules enacted by the FCC in August 2019 require a dispatchable location, such as the address, floor level, and room number of a 9-1-1 caller. This allows responders to locate the caller and incident location more quickly.

As NG9-1-1 applications become more widely available, the 9-1-1 service and the telecommunicators, adept at answering those service communications, will continue to save lives by sending the right emergency help when and where needed. The technology improvements also provide additional help options, such as receiving texts to 9-1-1, video from an active scene, images from an accident, and other information that may be helpful to the emergency units responding.

The Future of 9-1-1

From an idea to have an easy-to-remember number for people to call during an accident, 9-1-1 has evolved over the last 67 years to be the number to call to get medical, fire and law enforcement assistance. The telecommunicators who answer the calls are heroes who work quickly to get help to those in need and provide calm guidance during emergencies. The one number to dial for emergencies continues to save time and lives!


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