February 16, 1968 sees the first official “911” call placed in the United States. Now taken for granted as first course of action in the event of emergency by nearly all of the nation’s 327 million people, 911 is a relatively recent invention and was still not standard across the United States for many years after its adoption by Congress.
As telephones became common in U.S. households, fire departments around the country recommended establishing a single, simple number to be dialed in the event of a fire or other emergency. A similar system had been implemented in the United Kingdom decades earlier, in 1936, when the code 999 was chosen for emergency telegraph and phone communications. The Federal Communications Commission decided to act in 1967, but the number itself came not from the government but from AT&T, the corporation that controlled nearly all phone lines in the U.S. via its long-distance service and ownership of local Bell Telephone subsidiaries. At the time, AT&T was considered a “natural monopoly,” a monopoly allowed to exist because high infrastructure costs and barriers to entry prevented challengers from emerging. AT&T suggested the number 911 because it was easy to remember and, crucially, had not yet been designated as an area code or other code, which would make the transition easier.
The first 911 call was placed by Rep. Rankin Fite, the Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, in the town of Haleyville, AL on February 16th of the following year. Nome, Alaska adopted the system a week later. Still, it would years before the system was widespread and decades before it was uniform. It was only in 1973 that the White House issued an official statement in favor of 911, and even that a suggestion rather than a law or executive order. By 1987, 50 percent of the nation was using the system. Canada chose to adopt the same number for its emergency calls, and 98% of the US and Canada can now contact emergency services by dialing 911. 999 is in use in a number of former British colonies, and the number 112 is used in Russia, Brazil, and other nations, even sometimes routing to the same services as 911 in the U.S.