While TV viewers are familiar with characters calling 911, relatively few average citizens have had to actually use this service. And those that have, have often inadvertently abused the service. It is a number for use in emergency situations; to report a crime in progress, deaths or injuries, fires or other natural catastrophes threatening lives and property.
Calling 911 is something the public takes for granted today, but the emergency telephone number is a relatively recent phenomenon. While its use can be traced to a British implementation back in 1937 (where a London resident reported a burglary in progress by calling 999) it was not until 1968 that 911 was first announced as the single emergency public safety telephone number for AT&T’s telephone systems. Interestingly, in nearly every county that has established a single emergency telephone number for police, fire and emergency medical assistance it has been at the urging of the fire service. AT&T was eager to develop this system because by diverting millions of emergency telephone calls to a centralized agency, it relieved the burden on its operators who had to have phone numbers of police stations and fire houses readily available.
There is no definitive reason why the digits 911 were chosen by AT&T as the official emergency numbers. But it is easy to remember, and the “1” and the “9’' keys of a touch-tone phone are prominent in the upper left and lower right corners of the keypad. Touch-tone service was first introduced commercially in 1963 and phased in countrywide within 10 years.
There are some humorous cases of uninformed callers dialing 911 to report conditions unrelated to emergency situations. One example of innocent misuse of 911 within the local area was a resident, seeing suspicious objects neatly stacked and partially obscured by foliage in his front yard, dialed 911. The dispatcher advised the resident to call the local police and supplied the phone number. The objects turned out to be videos and CDs that had been taken from a neighbor’s car during a burglary. Neither the responding local police nor the resident could fathom why the “perp” would have neatly piled the goods behind some shrubbery on the front lawn. The police confiscated the loot and ultimately made an arrest.
Another incident in which the attention of a 911 dispatcher was distracted turned out to be frivolous rather than threatening happened in a rural area. An agitated caller, a woman, phoned to report animals in front of her house. She was afraid to open her door, hearing their activity on her front porch. The dispatcher calmed the caller, suggesting she try to identify the intruders by looking out an upstairs window. She did so as the dispatcher held the line. She returned, saying that deer, the most gentle of creatures, were the intruders. The dispatcher instructed the caller to get a broom, open her front door a crack and brandish the broom in front of the deer. He guaranteed the caller that the deer would scatter. She followed the dispatcher’s instructions and the deer bounded off. Fortunately for the county, it was a “slow” day and this incident did not distract the dispatcher from more serious calls.
A 911 call has to be reserved for the handling of emergencies requiring immediate and professional response. Any deliberate attempt to tie up the service as a prank or some type of protest is unlawful. And, since each call received by 911 can be taped, the prankster can usually be identified in short order. The genius of modern technology has been adapted to protect the citizens.
Today 911 is an enhanced service that goes far beyond simply providing an easy-to-remember single telephone number of public service emergencies. When you dial 911 from any telephone in a county, your call goes to the 911 communications center, generally located in the town serving as the county seat. The dispatcher is able to immediately access a wealth of information about the originating telephone number including the geographic location. This dispatcher can then ascertain what type of emergency you are reporting and directly send police, fire or ambulance assistance anywhere within the county.
The costs of providing these vital services are not cheap. The installation of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) whereby the exact geographic location of each emergency vehicle is pinpointed is a continuing cost. These costs are partially offset by the imposition of Regulatory Cost Recovery Charges as a surcharge to each telephone bill. Amounting to no more than a few dollars per month, it is a good insurance policy.
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