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50 years of 911: The small town that revolutionized emergency response

"Hello?" answered Alabama Rep. Tom Bevill on Feb. 16, 1968, during the first-ever test call of the 911 emergency system that's now been in use for decades nationwide.

By
Daniel Uria
The first-ever 911 call was made in Haleyville, Ala., on February 16, 1968 -- through the efforts of Alabama Telephone Co. President Bob Gallagher. Photo courtesy Haleyville, Ala., Chamber of Commerce/Facebook
The first-ever 911 call was made in Haleyville, Ala., on February 16, 1968 -- through the efforts of Alabama Telephone Co. President Bob Gallagher. Photo courtesy Haleyville, Ala., Chamber of Commerce/Facebook

Feb. 16 (UPI) -- The president of a rural telephone company took the initiative to establish the first 911 emergency system in a small northwest Alabama town exactly 50 years ago Friday.

At 2 p.m. on Feb. 16, 1968, in Haleyville, Ala., Speaker of the Alabama House Rankin Fite made the first 911 call -- from Haleyville Mayor James Whitt's office to U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill, who answered the test call with a "hello?" on a bright red phone in the police station.

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The call was the very first use of the now-universal three-digit emergency number that quickly connects Americans in distress to dispatchers and first responders.

"It doesn't matter where you are from or where you are at -- 911 is the universal emergency phone number," Haleyville Chamber of Commerce President Mike Evans told UPI. "Personally, I think all Alabamians -- especially in Haleyville -- swell with pride knowing that the work and ingenuity to make this idea a reality came to fruition here."

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After settling on the numbers "9-1-1" -- three digits that weren't already in use for any phone number or area code -- the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and carrier AT&T set out to build the first emergency phone system in Huntington, Ind.

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Bob Gallagher, president of Alabama Telephone Co., read about the FTC-AT&T plan in the Wall Street Journal and decided it was Haleyville -- a town of about 4,000 residents located 65 miles northwest of Birmingham -- that should try the system first.

"Bob was a little offended because the independent telephone companies had not been included in the decision," Haleyville Mayor Ken Sunseri, James Whitt's son-in-law, told Alabama Newscenter. "He got with his inside plant manager, Robert Fitzgerald, and they evaluated the company's 27 phone systems and chose Haleyville as the site where it made sense to make the first 911 call."

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After quick approval from Continental Telephone and the Alabama Public Service commissioner, Gallagher announced on Feb. 9, 1968, that the Alabama Telephone Company would make history.

Fitzgerald and his team traveled from Fayette to Haleyville, where they worked overnight throughout the following week to lay the foundation for the system that would revolutionize emergency response services -- and become a household number nationwide.

Nome, Alaska, was next to implement a 911 service on Feb. 22, 1968 -- and in March 1973, the White House's Office of Telecommunications issued a national policy statement encouraging nationwide adoption of 911, according to the National Emergency Number Association.

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"I don't think that anybody realized the effect that it would have nationwide," Sunseri told UPI. "There's over 200 million 911 calls made yearly. When people are in need, whether they need police, fire, ambulance or medical, this is the first line they call in some of the worst times people have in their lives."

"In the decades since the first 911 call, emergency communications services have improved and expanded to better respond to accidents, disasters, public safety threats, health emergencies, and other life-threatening situations," the White House said Friday in a presidential message commemorating 911 Telecommunicators Day. "Today, 911 services are available to roughly 97 percent of the geographic United States. Advances in technology have made this system more widespread, precise, and efficient -- enabling dispatchers to provide rapid response and timely assistance when the difference between life and death can be only a matter of seconds.

"Though we rarely see these heroes, we witness their around-the-clock devotion, and we owe them our deepest gratitude and appreciation for all that they do."

Nearly five decades after it made history, Haleyville again found itself at the center of another advancement in 911 technology. Last October, it placed the first call of Alabama's statewide Internet protocol-based Next Generation 911 network.

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"Alabama has always been on the forefront when it comes to 911," Winston County 911 Communications Director James Webb, whose uncle laid telephone line for the first 911 system, said. "We count that kind of a unique opportunity to be part of history being made again in the same place where it started 50 years ago."

To mark its role in history, Haleyville holds a "911 Festival" every year during the first weekend in June. The event remembers the historic call and celebrates its local first responders.

"Many of our local companies and employers are local families that stepped out with a spirit of adventure and were driven by a good idea and the desire to succeed," Evans said. "We like to think that innovation is not reserved for a special part of the country -- and not limited by the grandeur of the vision, but the lack thereof."

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