The push for the development of a nationwide emergency telephone number came in 1957 when the National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended a single number to be used for reporting fires. In 1967 the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended the creation of a single number that can be used nationwide for reporting emergencies. The burden then fell on the Federal Communications Commission, which then met with AT&T in November 1967 in order to come up with a solution.
In 1968, a solution was agreed upon. AT&T had chosen the number 911, which met the requirements that it be brief, easy to remember, dialed easily, and that it worked well with the phone systems in place at the time. The number 911 was chosen by a staff member of Senator Ernest Gruening, a Democrat from Alaska who had taken a trip to Europe and had seen that the British had a 9-9-9 nationwide emergency number. The number 911 was chosen by borrowing the 9 from the British number and choosing 11 because it was similar to the numbers in 2-1-1 (long distance), 4-1-1 (information, later called "directory assistance"), and 6-1-1 (repair service), which had already been in use by AT&T since 1966. Senator Gruening introduced a "sense of Congress" resolution to introduce the concept which was immediately supported by the fire and police chiefs' associations and attracted many cosponsors. It was introduced during the Vietnam War when funds were severely restricted, which is why it was introduced as a "sense of Congress" (meaning that the idea was one the Congress backed but wasn't funding) resolution rather than a regular funded bill. The introduction attracted national news attention at the time, as well as an editorial in Time Magazine. The resolution is part of the public record and can be obtained from Congress.
Furthermore, the North American Numbering Plan in use at the time established rules for which numbers can be used for area codes and exchanges. At the time, the middle digit of an area code had to be either a 0 or 1, and the first two digits of an exchange could not be a 1. At the telephone switching station, the second dialed digit was used to determine if the number was long distance or local. If the number had a 0 or 1 as the second digit, it was long distance, and it was a local call if it was any other number. Thus, since the number 911 was detected by the switching equipment as a special number, it could be routed appropriately. Also, since 911 was a unique number, never having been used as an area code or service code (although at one point GTE used test numbers such as 11911), it fit into the phone system easily.
AT&T announced the selection of 9-1-1 as their choice of the three-digit emergency number at a press conference in the Washington (DC) office of Indiana Rep. J. Edward Roush, who had championed Congressional support of a single emergency number.
Just 35 days after AT&T's announcement, on February 16, 1968, the first-ever 9-1-1 call was placed by Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite from Haleyville, Alabama City Hall to U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill (Dem.) at the city's police station. Bevill reportedly answered the phone with "Hello." Attending with Fite was Haleyville mayor James Whitt. At the police station with Bevill was Gallagher and Alabama Public Service Commission director Eugene "Bull" Connor (the former Birmingham police commissioner made infamous for suppressing protesters). Fitzgerald was at the ATC central office serving Haleyville, and actually observed the call pass through the switching gear, as the mechanical equipment clunked out "9-1-1." The phone used to answer the first 911 call, a bright red model, is now in a museum in Haleyville, while a duplicate phone is still in use at the police station. Some accounts of the event claim that, "Later, the two (Bevill and Fite) said they exchanged greetings, hung up and 'had coffee and doughnuts.'"
In 1973, the White House urged nationwide adoption of 911. In 1999, President Bill Clinton signed the bill that designated 911 as the nationwide emergency number. Even though 9-1-1 was introduced in 1968, the network still does not completely cover some rural areas of the United States and Canada.
9-1-1 and enhanced 9-1-1 are typically funded pursuant to state laws that impose monthly fees on local and wireless telephone customers. Depending on the state, counties and cities may also levy a fee, which may be in addition to, or in lieu of, the state fee. The fees are collected by local exchange and wireless carriers through monthly surcharges on customer telephone bills. The collected fees are remitted to 911 administrative bodies, which may be a statewide 911 board, the state public utility commission, a state revenue department, or local 911 agencies. These agencies disburse the funds to the Public Safety Answering Points for 911 purposes as specified in the various statutes. Telephone companies, including wireless carriers, may be entitled to apply for and receive reimbursements for costs of compliance with federal and state laws requiring that their networks be compatible with 9-1-1 and enhanced 9-1-1.
The amount of the fees vary widely by state and locality. Fees may range from around $.25 per month to $3.00 per month per line. The average wireless 9-1-1 fee is around 72¢ . Since the monthly fees do not vary by the customer's usage of the network, the fees are considered, in tax terms, as highly "regressive", i.e., the fees disproportionately burden low-volume users of the public switched network (PSN) as compared with high-volume users. Some states cap the number of lines subject to the fee for large multi-line businesses, thereby shifting more of the fee burden to low-volume single-line residential customers or wireless customers.
Congress in 2004 authorized $250,000,000 in annual funding for the 9-1-1 program, but actual appropriations to state and local 9-1-1 agencies are yet to occur.
In over 93% of locations in the United States and Canada, dialing "911" from any telephone will link the caller to an emergency dispatch center—called a PSAP, or Public Safety Answering Point, by the telecom industry—which can send emergency responders to the caller's location in an emergency. In some areas enhanced 911 is available, which automatically gives dispatch the caller's location, if available.
Dialing 9-1-1 from a mobile phone (Celluar/PCS) in the United States originally reached the state police or highway patrol, instead of the local public safety answering point (PSAP). The caller had to describe his/her exact location so that the agency could transfer the call to the correct local emergency services. This happens because the exact location of the cellular phone isn't normally transmitted with the voice call.
In 2000 the FCC issued an Order requiring wireless carriers to determine and transmit the location of callers who dial 9-1-1. They set up a phased program: Phase I transmitted the location of the receiving antenna for 9-1-1 calls, while Phase II transmitted the location of the calling telephone. The Order set up certain accuracy requirements and other technical details, and milestones for completing the implementation of wireless location services. Subsequent to the FCC's Order, many wireless carriers requested waivers of the milestones, and the FCC granted many of them. As of mid-2005, the process of Phase II implementation is generally underway, but limited by the complexity of coordination required between wireless carriers, PSAPs, local telephone companies and other affected government agencies, and the limited funding available to local agencies for the conversion of PSAP equipment to display the location data (usually on computerized maps).
These FCC rules require new mobile phones to provide their latitude and longitude to emergency operators in the event of a 911 call. Carriers may choose whether to implement this via GPS chips in each phone, or via triangulation between cell towers. In addition, the rules require carriers to connect 911 calls from any mobile phone, regardless of whether that phone is currently active. Due to limitations in technology (of the mobile phone, cell phone towers, and PSAP equipment), a mobile callers' geographical information may not always be available to the local PSAP. Although there are other ways, in addition to those previously stated, in which to obtain the geographical location of the caller, the caller should try to be aware of the location of the incident for which they are calling.
In the U.S., FCC rules require every telephone that can physically access the network to be able to dial 911, regardless of any reason that normal service may have been disconnected (including non-payment). On wired (land line) phones, this usually is accomplished by a "soft" dial tone, which sounds normal, but will only allow emergency calls. Often, an unused and unpublished phone number will be issued to the line so that it will work properly.
If 911 is dialed from a commercial VoIP service, depending on how the provider handles such calls, the call may not go anywhere at all, or it may go to a non-emergency number at the public safety answering point associated with the billing or service address of the caller. Because a VoIP adapter can be plugged into any broadband internet connection, the caller could actually be hundreds or even thousands of miles away from home, yet if the call goes to an answering point at all, it would be the one associated with the caller's address and not the actual location. It may never be possible to accurately pinpoint the exact location of a VoIP user (even if a GPS receiver is installed in the VoIP adapter, it will likely be indoors, and may not be able to get a signal), so users should be aware of this limitation and make other arrangements for summoning assistance in an emergency.
In March 2005, commercial Internet telephony provider Vonage was sued by the Texas attorney general, who alleged that their website and other sales and service documentation did not make clear enough that Vonage's provision of 911 service was not done in the traditional manner.
In May 2005 the FCC issued an Order requiring VoIP providers to offer 9-1-1 service to all their subscribers within 120 days of the Order being published. The Order has set off anxiety among many VoIP providers, who feel it will be too expensive and require them to adopt solutions that won't support future VoIP products.
Today most providers are conforming or trying to conform with the FCC's mandate by working with companies like Intrado or Level 3 Comm.
There are some problems with the assignment of the number 9-1-1. In particular, it can cause some dialing-pattern problems in hotels and businesses. Some hotels, for example, have been known to require dialling "91+" to make an outside call. This leads to calls that looks like 91+1+301+555+2368. Since that's a valid number, which starts with 911, and is not a call to an emergency service, a timeout becomes necessary on actual calls to 911. Such prefixes are strongly discouraged by telephone companies. This is also part of the reason why no area codes start with a "1": the slightly less troublesome "outside line" prefix of "9+" would then cause the same problem: "9+114+555+2368", for example. Another possible problem is that the international phone code for India is "91", and sometimes calls meant for India end up at the local emergency dispatch office. And in Germany, the domestic area code "0911" is reserved for the town of Nürnberg (Nuremberg) - in European countries with an open telephone numbering plan, like Germany, all area codes begin with a "0" prefix.
The number's close association with emergencies has led to "911" being used as shorthand for "emergency" in text messages sent to pagers and mobile phones—however, this is often used to tag situations which do not have the life-safety implications that an actual call to 911 implies.
In addition to the above problems, 9-1-1 is used so pervasively in U.S. and Canadian media and safety education, which is exported to other countries, that other countries have sometimes had difficulty in educating children not to dial 9-1-1 for help. Even many American tourists do not know that 9-1-1 is not generally an emergency number outside the U.S. and Canada, and sometimes face problems when they are abroad.
In 1991, the European Union established 1-1-2 as the universal emergency number for all its member states. In most E.U. countries, 1-1-2 is already effective and can be called toll-free from any telephone or any cellphone. The GSM mobile phone standard designates 1-1-2 as an emergency number, so it will work on such systems even in the U.S. In the UK, the number is 9-9-9 with 1-1-2 working in parallel.
In South Africa 10111 is used to call the South African Police Service, 10177 to call the national (state) ambulance service. The GSM Mobile Emergency number is 112. Vodacom users can also call 147. Private emergency numbers (medical emergencies) for "Netcare 911" is 082911 and ER24 is 084124.
9-1-1 Emergency Telephone Number Day was proclaimed, by President Reagan in 1987, to occur on the 11th day of September, the ninth month, of that year. The proclamation was made to promote the North American universal emergency telephone number 9-1-1.
Until 2001, September 11 was celebrated by many United States communities as "9-1-1 emergency number day" or simply "911 day". The promotional effort was often led by firefighters and the police. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the reminders of 9-1-1 were merged with or dropped in favor of remembrance of the attacks.
Another way of recognizing the efforts of the people involved in 9-1-1, and Public Safety Communications in-general, is National Public Safety Telecommunications Week (or as it is commonly called: Dispatchers' Week).
When the 9-1-1 system was originally introduced, it was advertised as the "nine-eleven" service. This was changed when some panicked individuals tried to find the "eleven" key on their telephones. (This may seem bizarre and amusing, but it is important to remember that in emergencies people can easily become extremely confused and irrational.) Therefore, all references to the telephone number 9-1-1 are now always made as nine-one-one — never as "nine-eleven".
Some newspapers and other media require that references to the phone number be formatted as 9-1-1; nine-eleven is still used occasionally but less so since the term came to refer to the September 11 attacks in the United States, as most Americans write dates month/day. It is advised that members of the media or other persons writing or speaking of the events of September 11, 2001 should never refer to those events as nine-one-one as this causes even more confusion.