The nation’s first 911 emergency call was placed by an Alabama state politician on this day in history, Feb. 16, 1968. 

The landmark moment came four years after the shocking unreported murder of a New York City woman proved to many Americans the need for a standard and easy-to-use system to call for emergency assistance. 

“Senator Rankin Fite completed the first 911 call made in the United States in Haleyville, Alabama,” writes NENA.org, the website of the National Emergency Number Association.

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“The serving telephone company was then Alabama Telephone Company. This Haleyville 911 system is still in operation today.”

Before the advent of 911, people had to make a direct call to local emergency services, a nearby police station or a firehouse, most likely after sifting through the pages of the phone book — a large tome in major metropolitan areas. 

They might also dial “0” for operator and ask to be connected to a local service. 

It was an ineffective system. It was often a deadly system. 

Kitty Genovese, 28, was attacked with a knife on the night of March 13, 1964. She bled to death in the stairwell of her Queens apartment, PBS documentary “Independent Lens” reported in 2017. 

Thirty-eight people heard Kitty Genovese cry for help — yet there was no system in place to report an emergency.

Police found that 38 people heard the woman cry for help, The New York Times reported after the murder. 

Yet none apparently called emergency services — or those few who did try to call were unable to reach police or got no response.  

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There was no direct number or other system in place for people to report an emergency. The outcry was intense. 

“While the history is a little more complex than that,” PBS reports, “it’s true that the tragedy was one of the inspirations for the system we know today.”

911 dispatchers

The 911 emergency phone number is now widely used across North America, and is synonymous with “distress” in both the United States and Canada. 

It arose and still exists as the primary and largely effective system to reach emergency services in the United States without an official government mandate or federal law, though officials in Washington, D.C., did help encourage the system. 

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The National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended a universal emergency number for reporting fires in 1957. 

A presidential commission got behind the concept of a universal number for all emergency situations in 1967. 

The National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended a universal emergency number for reporting fires in 1957.

Finally, “in November 1967, the FCC met with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) to find a means of establishing a universal emergency number that could be implemented quickly,” writes NENA.org.

Oregon house fire

“In 1968, AT&T announced that it would establish the digits 911 (nine-one-one) as the emergency code throughout the United States.”

The 911 combination was chosen for a variety of reasons — two most notably. 

Only half of Americans had access to emergency services by dialing 911 as recently as 1987. 

One, it was easy to remember and quick to call, even on the rotary phones of the era. 

Two, the 911 combination had not been used as an area code, service code or local exchange.

The phone number 911 was, in other words, unique to emergency services and has been ever since. 

The proliferation of 911 across the country is a fairly recent phenomenon — shockingly recent to many observers.

Only half of Americans had access to emergency services by dialing 911 as recently as 1987, according to NENA. 

Kitty Genovese murder

“At the end of the 20th century, nearly 93% of the population of the United States was covered by some type of 9-1-1 service. Ninety-five percent of that coverage was Enhanced 911. Approximately 96% of the geographic U.S. is covered by some type of 911.”

The first emergency phone number in the world was 999, introduced in London in 1937, according to World Population Review. 

Los Angeles established an emergency line — 116 — in 1946, decades before the universal 911 number was established.

Three-digit emergency phone numbers now exist in most nations around the world.

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