The telephone has been used for requesting assistance since the very first call. Supposedly Alexander Graham Bell called his assistant Watson for help after spilling acid on his clothes. The acid story is likely apocryphal, but the first words spoken were recorded in Bell’s notebook: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you!”
Britain was the first country to institute an Emergency Request call center, 75 years ago on July 8th, 1937. They use the number 999. Other Commonwealth countries like Australia and New Zealand followed suit in the 1950s and early 1960s, though they used different numbers: 000 in Australia, 111 in New Zealand. Winnipeg, Manitoba began using 999 in 1959, then changed to 911 in the 1970s.
The first wide-area emergency line in the US was established by the California Highway Patrol in December 1957. People could call ZEnith 1-2000. This was back in the days when people in small towns didn’t have to dial an exchange code to reach a neighbor. It was only needed if dialing outside their area or in cities, and for some reason it was given as a letter code. That’s why there have been letters above the numbers on a telephone dial long before texting was invented. It did have literary value. Glenn Miller had a hit with “Pennsylvania 6-5000” in 1940 (it was the telephone number of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City, where many big bands played in the Café Rouge Ballroom). Movies and books liked the letter exchange, too: “Call Northside 777” and “Dial M for Murder” are two examples. But I digress.
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice issued a report recommending a single nation-wide number to be used for reporting police, fire and medical emergencies. The White House and Congress, assisted by the FCC and AT&T, worked out the details of the system, and in January 1968 the number – 911 – was announced. 35 days after the announcement, the first ceremonial call was placed by the Speaker of the Alabama House, Rankin Fite, from the Haleyville (AL) city hall, to the police station, where it was answered by US Rep. Tom Bevill. The red phone used to answer the call is now on display in a museum in the town.
Later in 1968, New York City created their 911 center for police calls. It cost $1.3 million to build and answered around 18,000 calls a day. They didn’t expand to cover fire and EMS calls until 5 years later. The roll out of the system across the country was spotty and slow. For 911 to work, addresses in the US had to be standardized. In the 1990s, the old Rural Route system was scrapped and numeric addresses assigned. It wasn’t until October 26th, 1999, when President Bill Clinton signed Senate Bill 800, that 911 was designated as the official nation-wide emergency number.
In Champaign, IL, the METCAD center was set up in the 1970s. METCAD stands for Metropolitan Computer-Assisted Dispatch. As the deputy director of the center explained, in the 1970s it sounded cool and technically advanced to have “computer” in the name. Federal grant money had helped with its creation. Originally there were 9 dispatchers and 1 secretary who worked part-time. Now there are 27 dispatchers, all full-time, as well as supervisory staff. While they are under the city of Champaign, the center dispatches for 32 area departments.
They have an annual budget of a bit over $4 million and the dispatchers make $18 to $27 an hour. Five to seven people are on duty at a time, answering on average 1500 calls a day. That’s about 1 call every minute, but the calls can last between a half-minute and a half-hour, depending on the situation. Recently a tornado came through the Champaign area. (I was driving home on I-57 and saw the tornado in a field beside the highway.) The METCAD center was having a supervisor meeting at the time, so the supervisors got on the phones to help the dispatchers with the spike in calls.
The dispatchers all sit in one large, dimly-lit room, with four computer screens active at each desk. When a call comes in, the first person to answer the call takes it. One benefit of them being in one room is they can hear the other dispatchers’ calls. With cell phones, a number of calls will come in about the same incident. The dispatchers can hear when the emergency services have already been dispatched to a location.
The center keeps digital recordings of all the calls they receive for 180 days, and will give copies of the audio files to police, media, and attorneys when requested. If you make a 911 call, you can request a copy of that call.
The center does get its share of non-emergency calls. Many communities have instituted “311” as the number for such calls, so that they don’t tie up the 911 system. If you dial 911 by mistake, DO NOT hang up. Stay on the line and explain to the dispatcher you dialed in error and there was no emergency. No harm, no foul. If you hang up, a dispatcher will call you back to confirm there’s no emergency, which ties them up for a longer time. If they can’t reach you, the police will be dispatched to your location. The center has to assume there’s a real problem needing to be addressed with every call that comes in. We can be thankful for their vigilance.