What a 40 years it has been
Feb. 16 marked the 40th anniversary of the first 911 call. What an accomplishment that first call was, and what a magnificent job our entire profession and industry has done since then to make 911 available and effective for our citizens. It is hard to imagine what life would be like without the 911 safety net. As we take time over the coming months to celebrate this milestone and applaud our past and current efforts, we must also reflect on lessons learned — not only from our successes and triumphs, but also from our shortfalls as we forge ahead into the uncharted waters of next-generation 911.
From its inception, 911 has been about innovation and collaboration. A (very) brief history for those unfamiliar with the story: In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended the creation of a single, universal number that could be used from coast to coast to report emergencies. The FCC then was charged with spearheading this bold initiative. In turn, the FCC met with AT&T in November of that year to devise a solution.
In the first days of 1968, AT&T chose a brief, easy-to-remember and simple-to-dial number: 911. In Alabama, Bob Gallagher, then president of the independent Alabama Telephone Co. (ATC), read a story in The Wall Street Journal about AT&T’s 911 announcement. Gallagher’s entrepreneurial and competitive nature moved him to become the first to implement the 911 service. An ATC employee, Robert Fitzgerald, recommended Haleyville, Ala., as the launch site. Gallagher later issued a press release announcing that 911 service would go live in Haleyville on Feb. 16, 1968. Circuitry work and installation both were quickly completed, and just 35 days after AT&T’s announcement, the first 911 call was placed by Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite from Haleyville City Hall to U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill at the city’s police station.
Over the ensuing four decades, the public safety community, the telecom industry, and government officials and agencies all have worked to create a 911 system that the public can trust and rely upon in moments of distress. Admittedly, keeping up with technological advancements in consumer communication technologies, devices and trends has been difficult, and at times efforts between the public and private sectors have not been as synchronized or harmonious as they need to be.
These lessons can serve only to reinvigorate us and reinforce the long-held notion that to achieve any great success we must be proactive, not reactive, and must keep sight of the need to work together to achieve our next-generation vision. Through cooperation, collaboration and the execution of a well-organized plan, we can ensure the promotion of new and innovative communications services and simultaneously ensure that innovation and competition serve as a driving force to keep our 911 system state of the art.
Forty years of 911. Forty years of lives saved because of the technical and operational innovation and dedication of those who are the bedrock of our 911 system: telecommunicators and PSAP administrators, state 911 directors, 911 system and equipment vendors, government leaders who support the 911 cause, and the boards and staff of the organization I am proud to lead, who have served this community for the last 26 years. Forty years of dedication and teamwork to make our 911 system the best in the world.
As we move forward in developing and implementing the promise of a next-generation system that will take us through the next 40 years and beyond, we must never lose sight of the original spirit of innovation and collaboration that spurred the first 911 call and got the ball rolling. If we remain committed, there is no task too daunting for us to overcome, and we will be able to look back and say, as Gallagher wrote to Fitzgerald so many years ago, “You did good.”
Jason Barbour is the current president of NENA. He is the 911 director for Johnston County, N.C.