Not A Contest
August 6, 2019
Everybody knows the story about the first 911 call. While people might not know the names and the exact date, they are usually aware of the event that took place in Haleyville, Alabama (USA), to beat the federal government at introducing its own system.
As the facts go, a local politician—Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite—dialed 911, a three-digit number designated by AT&T, and his call was picked up at the Haleyville police station by another politician—Alabama Congressman Tom Bevill.
The day was Feb. 16, 1968, and immediately after making the connection, the two politicians—who would go down in history for making an emergency call despite there being no emergency to report—celebrated over coffee and doughnuts.1 A red phone that figures prominently in the story is on display in the Haleyville town hall (and viewed each week by an average of 10 tourists, mostly dispatchers).
The story not so well-known is about the dawn of over-the-phone emergency instructions. According to the Principles of Emergency Dispatch, the honors for providing the first-recorded pre-arrival instructions goes to Bill Toon, a Phoenix Fire Department (Arizona, USA) paramedic. In 1974, Toon gave a crash course in CPR to a caller who subsequently saved a child’s life. (See related note at end of story) Toon’s instructions pre-dated release of the Medical Priority Dispatch System™ (MPDS®).
Toon’s was the first recorded message and the tape—in today’s terms—went viral, making the national circuit to promote paramedic legislation. Maybe someone stored the tape, but without the same attention to prominence as Haleyville’s red phone.
But another call might have beat Toon to the PAI punch.
An interview aired on NPR in 2018 puts the spotlight on Haleyville police dispatcher Ronnie Wilson, interviewed by Morning Edition Host Andrew Yeager. Wilson, who was hired shortly after the 911 system was implemented in Haleyville, talked about his career in dispatch and memorable calls. Foremost was a call when a woman's baby was choking and turning blue.
“I told her to place the baby in your lap upside down,” Wilson said. “With two fingers, mash in the small of their back and press them gently up and down. And then I heard that (imitating baby crying). Well, I knew then that we were home free, you know. And then she just grabbed the phone and says, ‘Oh, I love you’ and hung up.”2
Wilson did not date the call, and it wasn’t recorded. So, whether it came before Toon’s recorded call, that’s lost to history.
But that’s not the point.
While being first in something can strike a notation in history, giving potentially life-saving instructions isn’t about big egos. Emergency dispatchers are better known for leaving their egos at the door. They focus on understanding a situation and the people involved.
Wilson stayed in the profession 11 years, up until a massive heart attack affected his health so badly he couldn’t work (but close enough to retirement age that he hadn’t planned on staying much longer, anyway). Doctors put in a stent and then a pacemaker. He’s now 83 and has lived in Haleyville most of life, except for 12 years in active military service.
Wilson remembers a lot about the job. He was on the midnight shift and, aside from a couple of police patrolling the town, he was just about Haleyville’s sole working night owl. He and an ER nurse at the local hospital chatted occasionally on the phone to break a long night’s monotony. They never met directly but true to dispatch fashion, hearing a voice was enough.
Despite feeling so tired at times he feared falling off the chair, Wilson preferred working nights. He kept the door to dispatch open to the outside during the hot summers because there was no air conditioning. If medical help was needed, he read instructions over the phone from a guide the ambulance crews used (remember, this was the 1970s and pre-MPDS). Sometimes, a coroner would be called in cases where the patient wasn’t expected to survive the arrival of help. If response required fire equipment, Wilson (a volunteer firefighter) dropped the call, dashed over to the fire station, and he and the person on duty rushed to the scene. He followed the local dispatch written rule.
“If someone died and we didn’t know the name, we wouldn’t pass on the information [to the press],” he said. “You had to have the person’s name, or you didn’t bother people in those days.”
He considered a watching the weather as part of dispatch so he could better anticipate the types of calls he might receive. In cold weather—and it gets cold in that part of Alabama—he kept a list of service numbers for people to contact in case they called 911 to report burst pipes, a missing hiker on the Appalachian Trail, trees down, or creeks made impassable by rising storm water.
The lists, though helpful, could also interfere with the nature of a call. One late night, and it was cold enough to freeze pipes, a woman called frantic because her water broke. Wilson said she ought to call a plumber right away. Maybe it was the caller’s pregnant pause that told Wilson it wasn’t frozen pipes she was talking about.
“I realized she was about to have a baby and ordered an ambulance for her,” he said.
Wilson said dispatch involved a lot of decision-making. There were no rules, policies, protocols, formal pre-arrival instructions, training, certification, or GPS.
“We did the best we could and let it roll,” he said. “The job was rewarding, but it was not too regular we’d hear about how we’d done.”
Wilson received an honorary NENA membership at the 25th anniversary of the first 911 call in appreciation of his dedicated service and being among the first group to dispatch using the three-digit number. Haleyville continues to sponsor the annual 9-1-1 Festival, which took place May 31 and June 1 this year.
Haleyville is in Winston County, Alabama. Winston County 9-1-1 Communications District is the Consolidated Emergency Communications Center for Winston County.
Note: In Toon’s call, the child was revived following an all-too frequent cause of deaths among children in Arizona: drowning. Sadly enough, drowning is one of the leading causes of death for children under age four in Arizona. According to an Arizona child fatality review team, drowning claims the lives of 30 children per year in the state, and Arizona children, ages 1 to 4, drown at nearly twice the national average.3
1 Eschner K. “9-1-1 Has Meant ‘Help Please’ for 49 Years.” Smithsonian.com. 2017; Feb. 16. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/9-1-1-has-meant-help-please-49-years-180962143/ (accessed April 1, 2019).
2 Yeager A. “50 Years Ago, How A Small Alabama Town Pioneered The First 911 Call.” 2018; Feb. 1. https://www.npr.org/2018/02/21/587502641/50-years-ago-how-a-small-alabama-town-pioneered-the-first-911-call (accessed April 1, 2019).
3 Lollman L. “Statistics show Arizona children drown at nearly twice the national rate.” azfamily.com. 2018; Aug. 8. https://www.azfamily.com/archives/statistics-show-arizona-children-drown-at-nearly-twice-the-national/article_57d215bc-950d-5b0d-b834-9eb1d262482f.html (accessed April 1, 2019).