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Learn the history behind the universal emergency number 9-1-1

The three-digit telephone number 9-1-1 has been designated as the "Universal Emergency Number," for residents throughout the United States to request emergency assistance. It is intended as a nationwide telephone number and gives the public fast and easy access to a Public Safety Answering Point.

In the United States, the first catalyst for a nationwide emergency telephone number was in 1957, when the National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended use of a single number for reporting fires.

In 1967, the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended that a "single number should be established" nationwide for reporting emergency situations. The use of different telephone numbers for each type of emergency was determined to be contrary to the purpose of a single, universal number.

Other federal government agencies and various governmental officials also supported and encouraged the recommendation. As a result of the immense interest in this issue, the President's Commission on Civil Disorders turned to the Federal Communications Commission for a solution.

In November 1967, the FCC met with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) to find a means of establishing a universal emergency number that could be implemented quickly. In 1968, AT&T announced that it would establish the digits 9-1-1 as the emergency code throughout the United States.

The code 9-1-1 was chosen because it best fit the needs of all parties involved. First and most important, it met public requirements because it is brief, easily remembered, and can be dialed quickly. Second, because it is a unique number, never having been authorized as an office code, area code, or service code, it best met the long range numbering plans and switching configurations of the telephone industry.

Congress backed AT&T's proposal and passed legislation allowing use of only the numbers 9-1-1 when creating a single emergency calling service, thereby making 9-1-1 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 9-1-1 code as part of the general rate base.

On Feb. 16, 1968, Sen. Rankin Fite completed the first 9-1-1 call made in the United States in Haleyville, Ala. The serving telephone company was then Alabama Telephone Company.

In March 1973, the White House's Office of Telecommunications issued a national policy statement which recognized the benefits of 9-1-1, encouraged the nationwide adoption of 9-1-1, and provided for the establishment of a Federal Information Center to assist units of government in planning and implementation.

In the early 1970s, AT&T began the development of sophisticated features for 9-1-1 with a pilot program in Alameda County, Calif. The feature was "selective call routing." This pilot program supported the theory behind the Executive Office of Telecommunication's Policy.

By the end of 1976, 9-1-1 was serving about 17 percent of the population of the United States. In 1979, approximately 26 percent of the population of the United States had 9-1-1 service, and nine states had enacted 9-1-1 legislation. By 1987, those figures had grown to indicate that 50 percent of the U.S. population had access to 9-1-1 emergency service numbers.

At the end of the 20th century, nearly 93 percent of the population of the United States was covered by some type of 9-1-1 service. Approximately 96 percent of the geographic area of the country is covered by some type of 9-1-1.

* History provided by National Emergency Number Association