911....Never A Dull Day !

April 13, 2018



Syndicated by: Montana News

By: Marc Kelley

We all need help from time to time, and in many cases we dial the National Emergency Telephone Number, we now simply refer to as, 911. Like many things in our world today, many people have come to believe, the 911 system is simply a service provided by our local municipalities and the people who answer the calls are mindless automatons with nothing better to do than wait for our next, self proclaimed emergency. It is a thankless job, requiring the operators to sift through hours of nonsense, and complete stupidity, waiting for the one call, which truly represents an emergency. 911 operators are truly unsung hero's, people who willingly work in 24 hour shift rotations and are always there to answer our calls; yet, rarely receive the credit they are due.


The term "emergency", means many things to many people. As an Emergency Department RN, working the triage desk at the hospital, I experienced this phenomenon first hand on many occasions.While I could regale you with some of these stories, that is a subject for another day. Today, I would like to tell you a story about our 911 system, how it came into existence, the people who answer those calls and the plans to bring this system forward, into a world being made ever smaller, by technology.

The telephone was invented in 1876, by our old friend Alexander Graham Bell. This post Civil War invention, allowed people to actually speak to each other over great distances and ultimately would replace the first texting system, we now know as the telegraph. Today, most of us use Smart Phones…those portable little computers, which invite company's like Facebook and Google to share our most personal information with anyone willing to pay up for that data. However, this was not always the case, and our story harkens back to the "good o'l days", when telephones were sturdy devices, made of Bakelite and were wired directly into the walls of our homes. In the days of "party lines", each household had its own ring tone and the only people listening on the other end of the line, were the AT&T operator and the nosey neighbor down the lane, who loved to eavesdrop, hoping to pick up a juicy bit of gossip about her neighbors kidney stone. Aha yes…those were the good o'l days for sure.

If you had an emergency, which my Grandmother always defined as lots of blood and a bone sticking thru your skin, you went to the telephone, cranked the magneto and when the operator answered, you told her, the place is on fire, send the Fire Department or send the Police, Uncle Joe has been drinking again and he's threatening to saddle-up the hog and ride him into town again… and the operator would place the call to the appropriate people.


This is how it was, up until the invention of the rotary dial telephone. Today, most young people (anyone under about 50) have never experienced a busy signal or the inability to see their callers identity displayed on their device screen. People actually were concerned with "telephone manners" and we taught our children how to answer the telephone correctly. Like many things in our country, telephone manners and civility on the telephone, have long ago disappeared and been replaced by an egocentric demand for immediate gratification. No longer do we speak to each other in a polite, civil tone or any tone for that matter….we text. The ability to communicate verbally, is quickly disappearing; and if you should choose to doubt this statement, I challenge you to attempt to have a telephone conversation with a member of the Millennial Generation.


The first documented use of a National Emergency Telephone Number, began in the United Kingdom in 1937. The UK settled on the number 999 as their emergency contact number and that number remains in service today. In North America, the first used of a standard emergency number, occurred in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada in 1959, utilizing the 999 exchange.


In 1957 the National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended the US develop a standardized emergency number for reporting fires. However, in true political fashion, no action was taken for nearly a decade. In 1967, under The Johnson Administration, the Presidents Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, established 911 as the nationwide emergency reporting number. That same year Canada followed our lead, changing their emergency contact number to the 911 exchange as well. 


Any reasonable person would recognize the positive effects of having a standardized emergency number. Faster response times, more accurate reporting of information and the correct assignment of resources. These benefits should not be seem as luxuries; but rather, the right response to protecting the public. But alas, we cannot do anything in this country without our politicians adding their self proclaimed, superior intellect into the mix and implementation of the 911 system took many years. Much like today, the City of Chicago, a city governed by Democrats for decades, chose not to protect their citizens by implementing the 911 system. Chicago leaders cited the high cost of the system and lack of empirical data on the effectiveness of a 911 system, as justification for their decision. As late as 1989, twenty-eight Chicago suburbs, offered no 911 emergency service to their citizens.


The reality and effectiveness of the 911 service was quickly evident to anyone willing to look at the subject of public safety. By 1979, 26% of the US population could dial 911 requesting emergency assistance. By 1987, 50% of our country was covered and 93%, by the year 2000. As of December 2017, 98.9% of the US population, is covered by the 911 system.


Over the next few weeks we will look at the successes of the 911 system, the failures learned in the wake of 9/11 and the vision for the future for this system, far too many of us take for granted.


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