Past, Present, More To Come

André Lanier

André Lanier

Guest Writer

National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week 2021 is less than two weeks away (Sunday April 11 through Saturday April 17) creating the ideal time to revisit the history of 911 and see where we are today.

Early days of 911

Early discussions for an emergency number originated in 1957 by the National Association of Fire Chiefs. The chiefs recommended a single number a person could call to report a fire. However, other organizations wanted separate numbers for other emergencies. Discussions on national numbers for emergencies continued until 1967. It was at this time when the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended that a single national number be established for reporting emergencies. The commission realized that the public needed a national number that was short, identifiable, easily remembered, and quickly dialed whatever the emergency. They selected the three-digit 911.

Alabama State Senator Rankin Fite made the first 911 call in Haleyville, Alabama (USA), on Feb. 16, 1968. This was followed by a call in Nome, Alaska (USA), on Feb. 22, 1968.

The White House’s Office of Telecommunications issued a national policy statement in March 1973. The policy established the Federal Information Center. The policy recognized the benefits of 911, encouraged a nationwide adoption of 911, and assisted state and federal agencies in the planning and the implementation of 911 call centers.

Today, 911 telecommunicators in 5,806 primary and secondary PSAPs across the United States answer and dispatch calls over from 650,000 individuals (240 million) annually.

Change over time

The titles given to 911 workers have changed over the years and these are emergency medical (fire and police) dispatchers, dispatchers, 911 operators, and telecommunicators. They are considered the “first, first responder.” By definition, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the position involves handling calls while operating the radio, telephone, and computer equipment at the emergency communications center and receiving reports from the public about disturbances, crimes, medical issues, fire, and police emergencies. The 911 telecommunicator relays that information to emergency personnel (fire, police, and rescue first responders) and may maintain contact with the caller until emergency personnel arrive on the scene.1

Like most organizations, the PSAP must look to the horizon for changes happening with technology and people. Most calltaking systems are computer-driven with interactive maps and global positioning systems. Advances in medical procedures and technology have steadily improved with each passing year. These advances have allowed faster medical attention through the Protocols developed by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED®) used in PSAPs. In 2013, Gardett et al. wrote that thirty years ago, medical dispatching was considered the “weak link” in the chain of prehospital care. Emergency medical dispatchers (EMDs, currently known as 911 telecommunicators) were largely untrained laypeople who simply collected an address, phone number, and complaint information and sent an ambulance to every call. This is no longer the case. The use of scripted, medically-approved protocols is now the standard of practice for certified EMDs, who use such protocols to accurately and efficiently prioritize and triage calls by categorizing patients into high, moderate, low, and nonemergency acuity levels.2

From the humble beginnings in Alabama, emergency communication centers provide 911 coverage 96% of the U.S. population. A 911 telecommunicator is the voice behind emergencies, doing their jobs every day to save lives.

Note: To help you celebrate, the IAED is sponsoring a contest WITH PRIZES during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. Watch the IAED Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/InternationalAcademiesofEmergencyDispatch for more information as it develops.


1“Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2019; September 1. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/office-and-administrative-support/police-fire-and-ambulance-dispatchers.htm#tab-2 (accessed March 30, 2021).

2Gardett I, Clawson J, Scott G, Barron T, Patterson B, Olola C. “Past, Present, and Future of Emergency Dispatch Research: A Systematic Literature Review.” Annals of Emergency Dispatch & Response. 2013 1(2): 29–42.