Our Lifeline: 50 Years of 911

Fifty years ago this month, the very first 911 call was placed. Thanks to 911, wherever you are, whether ill, injured, or in danger, or when there’s a threat to your community, a call to 911 can quickly connect you with the help you need.

It wasn’t always this way. Unless you’re of a certain age, you likely don’t remember a time when calling for help meant remembering or searching for individual local phone numbers for police, fire or emergency services. Dialing 911 meant literally dialing—because you were using a rotary phone—and anxiously watching as the dial spun slowly right, then left, with the entry of each digit.

That all started to change in 1966. That year, the National Academy of Sciences published “Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society.” This landmark report highlighted how accidental death and injury, particularly from motor vehicle crashes, had become an epidemic in the United States. The report urged a series of steps to reduce these needless deaths and injuries, including the need to “explore the feasibility of designating a single, nationwide, telephone number to summon an ambulance.”

Only two years later that very first 911 call was placed. Since then, the system expanded nationwide and has continually been improved to match the pace of advancing technology. Today, a 911 dispatcher can connect a caller with help in seconds, even if the caller cannot provide an address. Soon, grants provided by NHTSA’s National 911 Program will support “Next Generation 911.” This will allow 911 calls to be transferred between call centers in case one is overloaded or affected by a disaster. Call centers would also be able to receive photos and videos.

No one wants to be in a situation that requires calling 911. But our communities are safer and stronger because, when needed, there’s someone at the end of the line ready to help. On this 50th anniversary, we should celebrate the lifesaving advance that is the 911 system and the women and men who make it work.