HOTLINE TO FAME
March 19, 2013
By Audrey Fraizer
Odessa (Texas) City Mayor Jim Reese knew a good thing when he heard about it and this time, back in 1969, it was a letter from a constituent telling him about an article he had read in a recent edition of Reader’s Digest.
The article—911: A Hot Line for Emergencies—published in the December 1968 issue of the popular magazine was written by U.S. Rep. J. Edward Roush, an early proponent of a three-digit system to summon emergency assistance. Roush’s hometown of Huntington, Okla., made history in March 1968 as Bell Telephone’s first-ever 9-1-1 installation; not long afterward, Roush sponsored legislation to adopt the three-digit number nationally.
Rep. Roush might never make it on anyone’s list of American heroes, but to Kevin Jones he does merit a place in 9-1-1 history right next to Rankin Fite and Tom Bevill, the two Alabama representatives known for placing and answering the first-ever 9-1-1 call on Feb. 16, 1968, in Haleyville (Ala.).
“9-1-1 is a big deal,” said Jones, executive director, Ector County (Texas) Emergency Communications District. “A really big deal.”
Jones has lived in Odessa for 55 years and as a youngster in the 1960s, he remembers seeing funeral home station wagons arriving at accidents to pick up the victims. The people weren’t dead, but, at that time, there were very few city-owned or privately-owned ambulance companies. Fire department dispatchers referred the calls to the local mortuaries.
That bothered Jones, especially after the time a station wagon picked up his brother following an accident in a public swimming pool. His brother was fine—a bump on his head from a shallow dive—but the memory stuck.
Jones grew up and pursued a degree aligned with police work, and 12 years into his chosen field, changes in 9-1-1 administration presented him with a choice.
State legislation in 1987 put 9-1-1 services and the operational funding collected under local control. The overall responsibility was transferred from the Odessa Fire Department to the Odessa Police Department and its newly formed Computer Operations Division.1
Sgt. Jones and fellow police Lt. Les Blalock were transferred to the new division, with Jones turning down a promotion to detective in exchange for the task of revamping the existing program into an Enhanced 9-1-1 system. By 1992, the growing district and 9-1-1 service required led to hiring Blalock and Jones full time along with Administrative Secretary Janet Bean. 2
Blalock retired on Dec. 31, 2009. Jones, the district’s former operations manager, succeeded Blalock as executive director. Jones can’t say he never looks back at the decision made 25 years ago, but he does enjoy looking back at the history of how his second profession came to be.
“Mayor Reese read the letter and contacted his city manager [Ronald Neighbors],” Jones said. “They were a very progressive team. The whole city was. Odessa was one of the first cities to own an ambulance service. I was one of three EMTs in the police department after I graduated from college in 1975 and joined the department.”
Reese and Neighbors also saw the potential for making a name for Odessa.
Neighbors was eager to see Odessa as the first city in Texas to have the 9-1-1 system installed. It was a prestige thing. Reese wanted to make it easier for citizens to get help in an emergency. He was altruistic. They appointed Assistant City Manager Ernie Crawford to get the ball rolling.
“This system will turn every telephone into a fire alarm box and police station house,” Reese said. “Properly used, the people of Odessa won’t have to worry about remembering numbers and wasting time trying to dial the various emergency agencies.” 3
In a preliminary meeting, the police department, Ector County Sheriff’s Office, ambulance service, fire department, and Texas Highway Patrol seemed genuinely excited by the plan to set up a single three-digit emergency number.
Jones credits field supervisors from the Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. for coordinating a service that routed 9-1-1 calls to a red phone set up in the Odessa Fire Department and answered by firefighters doubling as dispatchers, who, when necessary, would reroute calls requiring law enforcement to the green phone set up at the Odessa Police Department and answered by officers doubling as dispatchers.
Odessa became the sixth city in the U.S. and the first city in Texas to offer 9-1-1 services to its citizens when operations began on April 1, 1970, at an operational cost of $113 a month for the first year; the rate dropped to $59 per month in the subsequent year.
Participating agencies included the fire department, police department, public safety department, sheriff’s department, and ambulance service. Agencies not connected to the city contributed $2.50 a month. Southwestern Bell picked up the tab for modifying its switching equipment.
Galveston followed their lead 20 days later.
The new emergency system in Odessa took some getting used to, although Neighbors had heard about people dialing the three digits before the 9-1-1 system was actually operational; they were understandably curious and wanted to see how it worked and whether dispatchers could handle the job of transferring calls once reserved for general telephone operators.
Reese and his administrators pointed out advantages of a trained dispatcher handling the calls and the speed of making a call compared to looking up and dialing a seven-digit number. Southwestern Bell would continue to provide emergency service through operators, although the phone company emphasized 9-1-1 as the fastest method for securing emergency aid.
Helen Reeves, who in 1977 started her career as an Odessa Fire Department dispatcher, was honored for 18 years of service when she retired in 1995. The job’s stress took its toll on her, she said, but the upside was saving lives.
“I was good, and I was quite proud of it,” she said.4
The district designation shifted the taxing structure to a monthly fee paid by phone subscribers. The fees collected today continue to cover telephone equipment, public education, and training. The district also provides support and training to the two PSAPs in Ector County: Odessa Public Safety Communications Center (a primary PSAP) and the Ector County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center (a secondary PSAP).
The dispatchers at the Odessa center are EMD certified, and they are in the process of getting EFD and EPD certified.
According to an article in the book Ector County, Texas: 125 Years of History, the district never let up on growth:
In 1999, there were over 43,000 calls made to 9-1-1, with 32% of the calls coming from wireless phone lines. In 2005, more than 57,000 calls were made to 9-1-1, with 53% of the calls coming from wireless phone lines. For the year 2009, there were 79,914 calls made to 9-1-1, with 75% of the calls originating from wireless phone calls. 5
The district supports several 9-1-1 emergency-related projects, including the Red E. Fox Public Education Program and the Annual Telecommunicator of the Year awards. The district is prepped and ready for NG9-1-1.
Jones commemorated the district’s 25th anniversary in 2012 by presenting a challenge coin to each member of the Texas 9-1-1 Alliance (an organized group of all Emergency Communication Districts in the State of Texas). The district’s logo was engraved on one side and the date of the 25th anniversary on the other side.
“Everyone said they wished they had thought of bringing something,” he said. “I was glad to be the one that did.”
1Glenn Justice, Ector County, Texas: 125 Years of History, Texas Historical Publishing Network, Texas; First Edition, 2001, pp. 112-113
2See Note 1
3Richard Womack, Emergency Phone System Has Prestige Value, The Odessa American, March 24, 1969
4Sarah Westbrook, City Emergency Service Program Recognized, The Odessa American, Sept. 12, 1995
5See Note 1