By Stacy Schwartz, Vice President – Public Safety & FirstNet

When times are the worst, we can always count on our first responder heroes to be at their best. So, we’re keeping the celebration of the 50th anniversary of 911 going strong. And we’re celebrating another milestone in Huntington, Ind., where the first 911 call took place on the Bell System 50 years ago today.

We’re proud to have been a part of 911 from the beginning, working with the FCC to establish the technology for the 3-digit number all in the name of saving lives. And we continue to work side-by-side with public safety as we move into the next generation of public safety communications. To the men and women that always answer the call, we thank you. And we stand with you, always.

The Three Digits that Forever Changed Public Safety in the U.S.

Calling for help should be quick and easy. And thankfully, due to the 3-digit 911 code that was put into place 50 years ago, it is.

Before the 911 code was created in 1968, you dialed “0” for the operator when you needed help and faced possible busy signals. Or you’d have to know the number to the nearest fire or police station if you found yourself in the middle of an emergency and didn’t have a phone book handy.

This wasn’t quick. Or easy. And in a scenario where every second counts, first responders knew there had to be a better way. They advocated for change.

So, the FCC turned to AT&T in 1967 to solve the problem because we had a proven history of serving public safety. One that dated back to the late 1870s.

We identified a unique number that would be short and simple. Those in need would be able to call it 24 hours a day. 7 days a week. 365 days a year.

In early 1968, we recommended making 911 the universal emergency code for the country. Congress agreed. And like that, 911 was born.

Haleyville, Ala., was able to complete the very first call on the new 911 system, recently celebrating its 50-year anniversary. 

And 50 years ago today, Huntington, Ind., followed suit, making the first 911 call on the Bell System. Congressman Edward J. Roush, a key proponent of the new emergency service, placed the first call from the Indiana Bell Telephone Company to Fredric H. Dutt, a policeman, at the Huntington Police Department.

Huntington residents quickly began using the service. During its first week, 13 calls were made to 911 – most reporting fires.

It took time to fully implement the 911 system nationwide. According to the National Emergency Number Association, 911 was only available to about 50% of the U.S. population in 1987.1 Now, about 240 million calls are made to 911 each year.2

The first 50 years of 911 have seen a lot of change. Two important innovations of note are:

  • NextGen 911 – This is an initiative to modernize decades-old 9-1-1 infrastructure. Why is it important? Because it’ll take 911 into the next 50 years, helping to create a more reliable and improved experience for those calling for help. And it will let the public communicate with 911 via pictures, videos and text. This can help 911 dispatchers more accurately assess an emergency to pinpoint the right response. Plus, it gives you more ways to interact with 911 when voice isn’t an option. Or when an image can say it better. 
  • FirstNetThis is a lifesaving communications platform dedicated to America’s first responders and public safety community. So how does it benefit 911? Well, it will help 911 dispatchers communicate more quickly with police, fire and EMS. Plus, FirstNet can be used with NextGen 911 to create an efficient flow of communications from the caller to the 911 dispatcher to the first responder. Think: the photo or video you send to 911 can now be sent from 911 to the emergency responder being dispatched to help you. As standards develop, we intend to integrate FirstNet with NextGen 911 networks.

But change isn’t without its challenges. The call landscape has dramatically evolved. Today, more than 80% of calls come from mobile devices,2 which has sparked critical conversation around location accuracy.

We take this issue seriously. We’re using a wide variety of technologies to continually improve the accuracy of location data to help first responders quickly find you. This includes using technology from mobile device makers. There is more work to be done here, so we will continue to collaborate with public safety, the CTIA and others in the industry to continue to make positive strides.

For the next 50 years and beyond, we’ll continue to stand with public safety to deliver the innovative communications tools our emergency responders need to complete their missions.

We invite you to explore our photos and videos for a view of the evolution of 911, to check back often for updates as we celebrate 911 throughout the year, and to share your stories for how our 911 heroes have helped you.

Click here to learn more about the 50th Anniversary of 911.