The 9-1-1 System

The year is 1944 and your chimney just caught on fire and it’s threatening to burn down your home. Who do you call? Certainly the fire department, but what is their number? Minutes are ticking by, and your roof is now on fire. That’s an experience that few of us face today because of the 9-1-1 emergency call system.

The tale of the start of 9-1-1 emergency calling is one that offers lessons for innovations on a national scale. But first let’s think of the situation in 1944.

  • Every emergency you might experience had a different phone number to call. Phonebooks used to list these inside on the first page.
  • If you needed more than once type of emergency responder, you had to call multiple numbers (e.g. a car wreck leading to injuries and a fire).
  • In metropolitan areas, who you called depended on where you lived.

The list could go on, and the problem was well known. The United Kingdom had a three-digit emergency number as early as 1937 to call for all emergencies. It was run by their post office.

Advocates had argued for something similar in the U.S. in 1957. Law enforcement came on board in 1967. In 1967, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) met with AT&T to identify a single number to call nationwide. The number 9-1-1 was selected because it had never been used as an area code or for other purposes. Congress backed a proposal of AT&T to establish 9-1-1 as the standard emergency number. (This was before the AT&T system was broken up.)

Our nation was slow to adopt the 9-1-1 system. In 1976 only 17% of America had adopted it. The percent adoption was only 26% in 1979. By 1987, the adoption rate was 50%. It was the TV show Rescue 9-1-1, hosted by William Shatner that is given credit for the rest of the nation accepting the 9-1-1 system. Today virtually all of America has adopted the 9-1-1 system.

Societal beginnings are tough. The 9-1-1 example is one where the beginning was driven by grassroots advocacy. It was people experiencing emergencies and first responders who became the initiators of the change. But it was the power of TV and dramatic rescues that made Americans aware of the power of the 9-1-1 system. There was less resistance in Congress as a result.

One wonders why grassroots advocacy is so less influential today. Could it be the result of unlimited spending by those who have special interests in defeating change? Could it be the easy-to-spread misinformation? The beginnings of 9-1-1 offer a lesson in what might be, but rarely has been in today’s society.

* * *

“All change starts with a distant rumble at the grassroots level.” – Tom Coburn (U.S. Senator)

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.