9-1-1 Origin and Evolution

9-1-1 is a service that many people take for granted today. This service is so ingrained in our daily culture that people don’t think about how it all started, and how it works, or all the advancements that have been made to it over the years. In this article, I will take you along the fascinating journey of 9-1-1, from when it was conceived, through where it will be going, and outlining several key changes and transformations it has made over the years.

History Lens

The first real emergency phone system was created in the early 1900s (iCERT, 911 Education, theindustrialcouncil). These phone systems required personal to manually route calls to their destination. This meant human intervention was required whenever someone picked up their phone to place a call, and ensure cables were being plugged into the correct jack to get the call to the correct destination. This process was very time-consuming and prone to human errors (www.museumofyesterday.org). The origins of these emergency communications systems were crude, relying on a crank phone, and an operator on the other end. This was used to primary make reports of train robberies.

Figure 1

Switch Board

Telephone usage was growing in popularity with more and more homes starting to get a phone. This increased usage only overtaxed these operators even more. As you can see by this chart, the widespread use and need for communication have exploded over the course of the last 100 years (Desjardins, 2018)!

In 1912, in the wake of the Titanic catastrophe (Department of Commerce, 1712), the need for improved emergency communication took a huge leap forward. After the disaster of the Titanic, it was discovered that a nearby ship that could have heard their distress signal and helped, did not have a radio operator on duty during that time. Regulations were formed that mandated all ships would have someone stationed in their radio room and monitoring for any distress signals. This is the first time, that emergency communications take on a regulated mandatory policy.

In 1957, the National Association of Fire Chiefs reported the need for a single number to call to report a fire (Lanier, 2021).  This started the debate on whether each emergency service should have its own number, Fire, Medical, Police, etc... It was not until 1967 when the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended using a single number, 9-1-1, for all Emergency communication calls. Soon after this recommendation, the 1st 9-1-1 call was placed by the then Alabama State Senator, Rankin Fite. On Feb 16, 1968, the first 9-1-1 call was placed in Haleyville, AL.

Humanities Lens

9-1-1 services have had profound transformations, much of which are a direct result of the communities that use and depend on this service. In the short 2 years since the 1st official 9-1-1 call was placed (NENA), a Major advancement in delivering calls to the correct PSAP (Public Safety Answering Post) was made. The telephone companies, AT&T delivered their “Selective Router”. With this new service, calls were able to get routed to the nearest PSAP that could provide the fastest help for the individual calling 9-1-1. This service was in direct feedback from the public cry for improved response times and support.

In the late 1990s, cell phones had taken over in popularity. Cellphone usage produced a new way of life for people to stay connected with friends and family, but this also produced a new issue for 911 (Desjardins, 2018)! As more 911 calls are being placed by wireless calls, 911 dispatchers have been unable to pinpoint their locations as easily as they could with landline phones. It became apparent that by combining people's widespread use of cell phones, along with the use of their embedded GPS (Global Positioning System) chips in these phones, enhanced data could be provided to dispatchers. This has allowed new companies to form which provide access to additional services and features that the telephone companies are unable to provide.

Figure 2


The success of 9-1-1, and the advancements of the technology at the time were gaining international recognition, with Canada and Mexico shortly following suit. 9-1-1 services continue to evolve thanks to the feedback from the community at large. As people’s lives and work habits change, so are their demands on emergency communication.

            Today, thanks to the drive to be socially connected, constantly, you are now able to connect to 9-1-1 services in a wide variety of formats. Text-2-911 allows you to send a text message to a 9-1-1 dispatcher if you find yourself in a position where you are unable to talk in fear of your safety. Social Media is gaining wider adoption across all the major platforms like Facebook, and Twitter where you can reach a 9-1-1 dispatcher and ask for help. And now, Video messaging is becoming a reality in 9-1-1. More and more people find the interactions of seeing the person they are talking to better than just hearing a voice. This video sharing also means that more information can now be shared with dispatchers allowing them some much-needed visibility into the issues that required you to call 9-1-1 in the first place.

Natural and Applied Sciences

By the end of the 20th century (NENA), Demand and public cry out for improved response times for 9-1-1 calls reached a new height. With 93% of the country using 9-1-1 services, it became evident that many calls were not being routed to the correct location. Enhanced 9-1-1 this the answer to this demand. With the help from the telephone companies and the introduction to their “Selective Routers”, Calls could be more accurately delivered to nearby PSAPs.

Just like the history of 9-1-1 has evolved, so has the technology that it depends on. It was soon discovered that response times could be further reduced by storing caller’s location information in a database that could be displayed to the dispatchers answering these calls. This was the start of ALI (Automatic Location Information) (FCC, 2021). With the invention of, and the widespread adaptation of the cellphone, typical ALI information was unacceptable. Before the cellphone, the location of a phone was linked to a physical address. This was fine at the time because these landlines were stationary, but that is not the case for cellphones. Regulations had to be changed to account for these new devices, and a plan to provide accurate location information.

Social Sciences

Technology is used in everyone’s daily routine today. We are more socially connected today than we have ever been. Our lives have become much more mobile in recent years than they used to be. Many people need to commute to work, and this commute time is only increasing as bigger cities get overcrowded, and people move into more rural areas trying to escape the noise and hustle that comes with larger cities. The movement of the “cord cutters” has caused the dependency of mobile commination to skyrocket!

With all these changes, 9-1-1 has been slow to adapt to many of these new changes and advancements in technology, but that has not stopped the advances. 9-1-1 has realized that the location information provided by Enhanced 9-1-1 was insufficient and something needed to change to improve the location proficiency. This has allowed other companies to step in and fill the gap. Companies like RapidSOS (RapidSOS). These services integrate more closely with cellular devices to leverage the tools that the current providers have been unable to use. These services allow for a much more accurate location mapping of the caller.

COVID has also played a role in how 9-1-1 was being used. When COVID hit, everyone was impacted by having to socially distance themselves to minimize the spread. PSAPs were no different. In the early days of 9-1-1, this would not have been possible. 9-1-1 calls were tied to physical phone lines and specialized equipment. The advancements of the internet, its reliability, and advancements in SIP (Session Initiated Protocol) have allowed 9-1-1 to take on a new form, NG9-1-1 (Next Generation 9-1-1) (George S. Rice). Not being tied down to a single location or relying on specific hardware has allowed PSAPs to let their dispatchers work remotely while still having access to all the tools and equipment that require to provide the critical support their jobs demand.



Only by addressing all 4 lenses can anyone truly be ready and make meaningful changes or improvements. Each lens gives a unique perspective of the events leading up to the present. Failure to understand each lens is a recipe for failure of any project, especially if you fail to understand the history of the topic and any issues that others have faced, you are almost assured to repeat them.

Social Practices

Society is like a herd, Once a few start adopting something new, they are sure to spread the word, either good or bad. If you underestimate the impact that others will surely have on your product or service, even the greatest intents can turn catastrophic.

Benefits and Challenges

By understanding each of the 4 lenses, you set the stage to become successful. You are getting a thorough understanding of the current issue, and any “butterfly effects” that your solution might cause. Sometimes, these butterfly effects are small and non-impactful, but it’s the larger impacts that you are really preparing yourself for.

It takes time to investigate and truly understand, in an unbiased format, each lens. It can be difficult, or near impossible to find data on some newer topics but being able to think outside the box and use related material, even if it’s not directly relatable could be useful.


The key to any great research is remaining as unbiased as possible. Looking at opposing arguments and remaining rational is key. This is the only way to retain creditable research.  As others review your material, they might not be as unbiased as you are, but giving them the ability to see data that matches their point of view, but helps your case is only going to help in the long run. You also get the added benefit of enlightening them into seeing your views in a new light that they might have otherwise rejected.



Works Cited

Department of Commerce. (1712, 08 13). An Act To regulate radio communication. Retrieved from earlyradiohistory: https://earlyradiohistory.us/1912act.htm

Desjardins, J. (2018, 02 14). The Rising Speed of Technological Adoption. Retrieved from visualcapitalist.com: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/rising-speed-technological-adoption/

FCC. (2021, 08 31). Public Safty and Homeland Security. Retrieved from FCC: https://www.fcc.gov/general/9-1-1-and-e9-1-1-services

George S. Rice, J. (n.d.). History of 911 and What it means for the future of Emergency Comunications. Retrieved from iCERT: https://static.wixstatic.com/ugd/b8d2ce_e6b60db90b47454dbb047f451278aa66.pdf

iCERT, 911 Education, theindustrialcouncil. (n.d.). HISTORY OF 911 And What It Means for the Future of Emergency Communications. Retrieved from theindustrialconcile.org: https://static.wixstatic.com/ugd/b8d2ce_e6b60db90b47454dbb047f451278aa66.pdf

Lanier, A. (2021, 03 31). Past, Present, More To Come. Retrieved from https://iaedjournal.org/past-present-more-to-come/

NENA. (n.d.). 9-1-1 Origin & History. Retrieved from nena.org: https://www.nena.org/general/custom.asp?page=911overviewfacts

NENA. (n.d.). 9-1-1 Origin & History. Retrieved from NENA: https://www.nena.org/general/custom.asp?page=911overviewfacts

RapidSOS. (n.d.). RapidSOS. Retrieved from RapidSOS: https://rapidsos.com/united-states-eccs/

www.museumofyesterday.org. (n.d.). Museum of Yesterday. Retrieved from www.museumofyesterday.org: http://www.museumofyesterday.org/museum/page3.htm

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