(Image credit: arstechnica.com)

(Image credit: arstechnica.com)

The one time I really got in trouble as a child, it was for calling 9-1-1. My brother and I were playing with my parents. Tickling was involved. And we called 911 and told them that there was a tickle monster at our house and then hung up. And then 911 called back to talk to our parents. Because 9-1-1 is for real emergencies. Not tickling. Because it saves lives. Thousands every year. And keeps us all safe. (To help a kid learn how to use 9-1-1 better than I did – I learned – this will help.)

But we take it completely for granted. 9-1-1 is just there, saving our lives. We forget, that at every level, from the phone working to do this to the services itself: 9-1-1 is government. Government regulations and civil servants literally saving our lives.


I know, right? We make 240 million calls to 9-1-1 a year. About 70% of those are from cell phones. That number is going up as more of us give up, or have never had, a land line. “As of 2006, 99% of the U.S. population had access to 9-1-1.” And every one of them is because government makes it possible.


Well, a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s a federal law that all phones, including phones that have been disconnected for nonpayment, can always reach 9-1-1 in an emergency. That means that your old candy-bar cell phone, as long as you keep it charged, can sit in your car and reach 9-1-1 in an emergency. Even if your regular phone is dead. Success in an emergency!

Second, 9-1-1 is connecting you with public safety services: the police, firefighters, and emergency services. And most of the 9-1-1 operators are public servants and work for local government. Also more things. So many more.

OK, what happens when I call 911?

(Image credit: ABC News 17)

(Image credit: ABC News 17)

Step 1: You have an emergency and dial 911 for help. You’re reporting a crime or a fire or looking for an ambulance.

Step 2: Your call is routed to the nearest Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) to your location.So, there isn’t a national 9-1-1 call center. That would not work well – too many calls in too many places and no one would have local knowledge. It’s usually in your county, as a joint project of local government and phone companies.

Step 3: A trained operator who works in your area answers your call. He or she will ask you what the emergency is and ask for a back up call-back number. They don’t have your phone number when you call – it takes way to long to trace you. It can take 10-15 minutes, and a lot can happen in that long. So do your best to give them your location right away, just in case they need it.

Step 4: Help is on the way. The person who answers your call must be ready to help you save yourself if you are choking or to evaluate your injury and needs. Or help coach a child through making the call. And ensuring that the right help gets to people in need, whether it’s police, the fire department, or emergency medical services (or all of the above).

They have radio dispatch to direct the help.And they have computer-aided dispatch, to give that help information about hazards that could prevent them from reaching you. They record all the calls for at least 30 days to let the policy and prosecutors review the information. They usually have back-up power and generators because in case of an emergency, you’ll really need access to 9-1-1.

Well, that’s how it used to work. But most calls are now on the enhanced 9-1-1 system. So when you call, the phone company recognizes the number and routs the call to the right dedicated 9-1-1 location where you live. They also add your address, so when you start talking to the operator, they already have your number and address. The PSAP can usually then send that data to the police computer network so their response time can be even faster.

And it’s all funded with a small fee, whether federal, state, or local, on your phone bills. It really is our 9-1-1 service.

So how do they find me when I call on my cell?

Here’s the problem with cell phones. Land lines are in a place. So 911 knows where you are when you call: the place with the phone. But your cell phone can be anywhere. My cell phone has been in Singapore. Even with your smartphone GPS on (not available on every phone), it’s really only accurate to about 50-300 square feet – and that’s outside. That is not very accurate in a city with millions of people living in it. Also, when you are inside, all bets are off.

So when calling from a cell phone, tell them your location immediately. In case your phone dies or the call is lost. Then, they can find you anyway.

There’s a new FCC rule requiring wireless carriers to give more precise locations to PSAPs, but it’s tricky, and some are worried that it might have privacy issues if we can be tracked that accurately with our cell phones. So, there’s that. So really, tell them your location.

What about with VoIP?

So, VoIP is a ways to send voice communications over the internet. Basically, it’s just phone calls on the internet. Like Skype. Or Vonage. And you can Skype to 9-1-1. The FCC requires it. Awesome.

Has there always been 911?

Very no. While England has had an emergency phone number (999) since 1937, after several women died in a fire because their call was on hold with the telephone operator, we didn’t have a universal emergency number in the United States until the 1960s.

Until then, Americans had to memorize the numbers of the local police and fire departments and then remembered them in an emergency. That works all the time, right? And if you lived in a big city, with different departments in each neighborhood. That’s right: different phone numbers to memorize for if you were at a friend’s house. Or you could call the operator and hope they directed you correctly. In an emergency. When you’re stressed and someone could die.


Very. So, In 1957, the National Fire Chief’s Association suggested that we could have a national emergency phone number, but it was President Lyndon B. Johnson who started the project off in 1967. The government worked with AT&T to figure out what the number should be (9-1-1, obv.) They also set it up so police departments would have two numbers: 9-1-1 for emergencies and a regular number for non-emergencies. Congress passed legislation setting up 9-1-1 as our national emergency response number and set it up so that the technological upgrade it would require could be paid for under basic phone rates.

Within 10 years, about 25% of Americans could use 9-1-1. In 1989, it was at 50%. And now? 99% of Americans can use 9-1-1.

So, why do we dial 9-1-1 instead of 9-9-9, like in England?

Because it’s easy to remember. And rotary phone dialing. Remember these (possibly only from Hitchcock films)? They wanted to make it hard to dial accidentally and dial quickly. So the 9 at the beginning makes it something you’re not likely to dial by accident, and the 1’s at the end are fast.

When was the first 911 call?

There is a 911 festival in Haleyville, Alabama. Because it’s where the first 911 call in the United States happened: February 16, 1968. It was not an emergency call (It was Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite at City Hall calling U.S. Representative Tom Bevill at the police station. He said “Hello.”), but still. 911 was born.

(Image credit: Acetowns.com)

(Image credit: Acetowns.com)

And since then?

Millions and millions of calls. And thousands of lives saved. And millions helped. Fires put out. Cats saved. Parents and children and friends and strangers and….

And so many technological advances, right?

Yes, so many. They’re working with cell phone companies to get better location data, so we can be found in an emergency when we can’t give or don’t know our address. They’re improving the internal technology to help prevent the operators from making human errors that can put us in danger.

Oh, and they’re making it so much easier to contact 9-1-1. You can even text 911 now. Yes. At least one man had Siri call 911 for him. And yes. Alive.

So, what’s the upshot?

From the White House to Congress to local governments to the police, firefighters, and ambulances, government has come together to keep us all safe. When our lives are threatened, when we are scared, when all hope seems lost, we can dial 9-1-1. And our government comes to our rescue.

I love my 9-1-1 emergency response. Thank you, government.

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