9-1-1: A 55-Year Retrospective of Emergency Response in the United States
By Dru Clarke, Customer Training Manager
One of the first things parents teach their children is how to dial 911 when an emergency occurs. The simplicity of this system has saved the lives of multitudes and continues to do so despite many challenges.
911 is the emergency telephone number for the North American Numbering Plan (NANP), which includes the United States and Canada. The idea for a single emergency telephone number dates back to 1957 when the National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended the creation of a single number that could be used nationwide to report fires. Until this point, residents would call their local police department in case of an emergency. Many local jurisdictions had overlapping territories and response times varied wildly.
But it wasn’t until the civil rights movement that 911 became a reality. In the summer of 1967, 158 protests erupted nationwide in response to racial injustice. President Lyndon Johnson was concerned that these rallies were generating civil unrest. He wanted to create an emergency response system that could maintain order during these protests. He appointed a National Advisory Committee that became known as the Kerner Commission. Johnson tasked the Kerner Commission with studying 24 alleged “civil disorders” across 23 cities that took place. This task force released the “Kerner Report,” which aimed to address the prevention of future “riots” during periods of civil unrest. The report provided the federal government with the research it needed to take action. Johnson argued to congress that instituting a 911 call system would decrease emergency response times, increase the number of arrests, and provide a more immediate response to crime. In 1968, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the 911 number as the standard emergency number for the NANP.
On February 16, 1968, in Haleyville, Alabama, Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite placed the first 911 call from Mayor James Whitt’s office to U.S. Representative Tom Bevill located at the nearby police station. The local newspaper and other officials also attended to witness the event.
In the early days of 911, calls were routed to the nearest police, fire, or ambulance dispatch office based on the location of the caller. This was done through a process called “caller location identification,” which used the location of the telephone switch that received the call to determine the caller’s location.
Over time, the 911 system has evolved to become more sophisticated. In the 1980s, the FCC required that all telephone carriers provide Enhanced 911 (E911) service, which included the ability to automatically provide the caller’s location to the 911 dispatch center. This was made possible through the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, which allowed for more accurate location information to be provided to emergency responders.
In the 1990s, the 911 system began to incorporate new technologies such as Automatic Location Identification (ALI) and Automatic Number Identification (ANI). ALI allowed dispatch centers to automatically receive the caller’s address and ANI allowed the dispatch center to automatically receive the caller’s telephone number. These technologies made it easier for dispatch centers to quickly and accurately identify the location of the caller and the telephone number that is used to place the call.
Today, 911 systems are facing a number of challenges. One of the biggest challenges is the increasing number of wireless calls being made to 911. With the proliferation of cell phones, more and more people are using their phones to place emergency calls, which can make it difficult for dispatch centers to locate the caller accurately. In addition, the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone systems, which allow users to make phone calls over the internet, has also added complexity to the 911 system. These calls can be difficult to trace, as they do not have a fixed location like traditional telephone lines.
Another challenge for 911 systems is the increasing volume of calls. As the population has grown, so has the number of 911 calls being placed. This has put a strain on dispatch centers, which are often understaffed and underfunded.
Nearly every 911 call center in the United States faces massive staffing shortages today. The Vera Institute of Justice released a study in 2020 that analyzed the 911 calls of five major cities over a two-year period. The study found that the vast majority of the 240+ million 911 calls each year are non-emergent in nature. They focus on such social issues as noise complaints, parking issues, and emotionally troubled or unhoused civilians. There are not enough call takers to handle the volume of civil and criminal issues that people report to their 911-call centers daily. Further, some of these calls can be highly traumatic and troubling to the 911-operator, creating the need for greater mental health within the PSAP (Public Safety Access Point) environment.
In recent years, there have been efforts to modernize and improve the 911 system. One of the main goals of these efforts is to provide more accurate location information to emergency responders. This includes the use of advanced technologies such as Advanced Mobile Location (AML), which allows a caller’s location to be automatically transmitted to the dispatch center through their cell phone.
The industry has made efforts to improve the way that 911 calls are handled. The advent of Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems allowed dispatch centers to efficiently route calls to the appropriate emergency responders. In addition, there have been efforts to improve how emergency responders communicate with each other, including using digital radios and other communication technologies.
Despite these efforts, the 911 system continues to face challenges. Funding is often an issue, as many dispatch centers are underfunded and unable to afford the latest technologies. In addition, there is often a lack of standardization across different jurisdictions, which can make it difficult for emergency responders to seamlessly communicate and coordinate their efforts.
One of the biggest challenges facing the 911 system today is the need to be prepared for a wide range of emergencies, including natural disasters, active shooter situations, and cyber attacks. This requires the development of robust and flexible emergency response plans that can adapt to a variety of different scenarios. Cloud-based call handling can keep 911 services available to their communities even in the face of natural disasters that might force the PSAP to change physical locations
Another challenge is the need to modernize 911 systems so that call centers can respond faster and more effectively to emergencies. As technology continues to evolve, there is a critical need to incorporate new tools that help manage technology into the emergency response process. Accurate geo-tagging, video sharing, and silent texting help first responders quickly identify the caller’s exact location, rapidly assess the situation and deploy adequate resources to the emergency.