50 Years of 9-1-1: Inside Perspectives on How Far We’ve Come and Hopes for the Future

​February 16, 2018 will mark five decades since the first historic 9-1-1 call was made in Haleyville, Alabama. 9-1-1 has changed a lot in those 50 years. To commemorate the occasion, I asked 9-1-1 professionals across North America about the biggest changes they’ve witnessed during their ​careers and their hopes for the future of 9-1-1. Here’s what they had to say:

Oren E. Rae, Continuous Quality Improvement Manager, San Francisco DEM/DEC

“First off, time sure flies by when you’re having fun. Fifty years, can’t believe it.

​I was a Police Officer in the 1970’s and still recall when we first began receiving 9-1-1 calls at our agency. As I recall, they came across on a very small screen, orange in color, and from land lines only. We didn’t receive a lot of calls initially, and many were just citizens testing to see if it really worked. There was no CAD system. The computer was used primarily to run subjects, enter stolen/recovered property, etc.​ There was no connection between the computer and phone system, no MVTs, and most everything was hand-written, including calls received, radio traffic, etc. 

​The biggest change is the integration of phone and CAD systems. This has automated many of our processes, and increased the efficiencies of call taking and dispatching. In addition, the number of calls received from cell phones has increased significantly. There are some issues that still need to be resolved. You can order a pizza online and most vendors can track your location down to the floor and room number. 9-1-1 cell calls can get you close, but not to the exact location. Soon we will have Text-to- 9-1-1, followed closely by the ability to send pictures and/or video.”    

Kim Lettrick, Acting Director, Southeast Communications Center (SECOMM), WA

“It is hard to believe 9-1-1 has not been around forever. Our agency celebrated 40 years of 9-1-1 in Benton County, WA on December 1, 2017. I celebrated my 30th year with our agency in October, so I have seen lots of change in my career. The biggest advancement that I have seen is Enhanced 9-1-1. I recall times prior to having ANI/ALI information when we were aware of an emergency but had no idea where the caller was. We had to call a phone company employee from their work/home to respond to the central office to trace the line and obtain a physical address. My hope for the future is that systems are developed more specifically for the 9-1-1 environment. We struggle with ‘call center’ technology at times that appears to be developed more for call centers than for us.” 

​Major Ronald D. Hoefeld, Jr., Communications Commander, Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office (LA)

“Looking back over my career in emergency communications/9-1- 1, I see the biggest change/advancement has been in technology for the Jefferson Parish 9-1-1 Communication District. I have been the Communications Commander for approximately 9 years. During this time, the district implemented TXT-2- 9-1-1 and recently moved to an Internet Protocol (IP) - based 9-1-1 telephone system. I have attended several seminars and have heard all the stories about being worried about incorporating text-to- 9-1-1 due to overloading personnel, and the ability to receive photographs and eventually video. This just is not the case. Text-to- 9-1-1 works and is a great resource and addition to our center. Our personnel are not overburdened with text messages and have not received any disturbing photos. Actually we have received photographs of suspect vehicles and license plates which can be passed on to the patrol division to aid in their investigations.

With the implementation of an IP-based telephone system, the district has moved from the old copper wire technology of 9-1-1 trunks which has its limitations. In the event of a shutdown of the primary center we no longer have to ‘swing trunks’ to the back-up center. Personnel can be moved to the backup center and simply log in and continue to answer 9-1-1 calls. During training of new personnel we can now log into the 9-1-1 phone system from both the primary and backup site simultaneously with an IP-based 9-1-1 telephone system (something we could not do on copper wire). The IP-based system offers a more diverse system than the old copper trunk technology.

​My hope and vision for the future is to continue seeking out the best technology available and implement it in our center to offer the best service possible. I also hope we can overcome the tremendous turnover of personnel in our industry, as this seems to be a major issue across the country.”

Shinar Haynes MBA RPL, Director of Operations, Orleans Parish Communication District, LA

“We have come a long way from manual cards, black and amber GUI screens, and wall maps. Technology has allowed for more timely responses, more accurate distribution of resources, and a better ability to keep responders safe. Telephony resources have improved from not having ANI/ALI to reliable landline information and improved cell-phone location accuracy.

Additional technologies such as GIS services, lighter smarter radio equipment, and wireless headsets support public safety communications’ abilities to excel in services provided.

My hope for the future rests in technology and training. Technology is changing rapidly. It is imperative that all PSAPs have the most updated and proficient systems available. To achieve this it will require strategic planning, restructuring, and funding. As we continue to make technology work for us we have to train employees on how to use it. We also need to train consistently and with a standardization of knowledge that provides the same call handling experience form New York to Fort Lauderdale, Phoenix, and Denver.”

​Anita Pitt, 9-1-1 Program Manager, Brazos Valley Council of Governments (BVCOG), TX

“BVCOG deployed 9-1-1 nearly 30 years ago and it was a big phone with one ring tone (loud) and all it displayed was an 8-digit telephone number. 9-1-1 rang and we answered it…that’s all there was to it. Over the years we’ve added addressing with tabular routing, mapping of the 9-1-1 call, wireless location capabilities and now Text to 9-1-1!  9-1-1 has come a long way in 50 years, but the biggest change is yet to come as we finally replace the old analog network with an IP network, deploy map-based routing, provide more accuracy of wireless 9-1-1 calls than we ever thought possible, and move toward Text to 9-1-1 that will include pictures and videos. NG9-1-1 will have exciting changes, but the bottom line is – it will allow 9-1-1 to better serve citizens.” 

​Nicole Lea, E9-1-1 Telecommunicator, Oneida County Sheriff Office, Rhinelander, WI 

“I believe the biggest change was the advent of the cell phone. Remember when all of your calls came from a LAND LINE? Now hardly anyone has a land line, (or even knows what it is). Instead of one person calling in an accident there are 50 people calling in an accident, all with a slightly different location.

​As a telecommunicator, my hope/vision for the future is that 9-1-1 dispatchers are recognized for the critical role they perform every day as the true 1st first responders.”

​Dr. Chris Kearns, Manager, City of Lethbridge Public Safety Communications Centre, AL (Canada)

“I started my career as a 9-1-1 dispatcher in 1991 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. At the time, 9-1-1 simply got the caller through to an emergency dispatcher who could send help. There was no address information, there was no telephone number, and there was no cell tower location (because cellular phones weren’t widespread yet)…  Just a phone call.  Over the years, ​we’ve seen the advancement from basic 9-1-1 to E9-1-1 with address and phone number data (ANI/ALI); phase 1 wireless with the cellular telephone number and the cell tower address; phase 2 wireless with GPS information; in car location updates for when a cellular phone’s location is updating from a moving vehicle…and now on to Next Generation 9-1-​1 (NG9-1-1) and the Internet of Things where 9-1-1 calls can come from any device and potentially send pictures, videos, and other data. 

Notwithstanding all of the exciting technology changes, the people of 9-1-1 have also changed with the technology. 9-1-1 has advanced into a profession and a career. It is rare that the 9-1-1 call taker doubles as the receptionist/records clerk/admin support person; 9-1-1 call takers and dispatchers are professionals with extensive training and in many cases, certifications and credentials under their belts. They are recognized as an important part of the emergency services response network. My hope for the future of 9-1-1 is the continued advancement of the profession and the ongoing adaptation of the technology to get emergency response to people where they need it!”​

Share this:
Twitter LinkedIn Facebook Email