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911: The Universal Emergency Number

Employee safety is always a top concern for any business. Since its inception, 911, the “Universal Emergency Number” for people in the United States, has become the go-to telephone number for reporting everything from medical emergencies and fires to crimes. While the use of 911 is now widespread, this wasn’t always the case. Before the 1970s, there was no nationally regulated system for reporting emergencies, and the slow implementation of the 911 telephone system meant it took three decades before Americans fully had a widespread system to call their own.
In the 1950s, there were two ways for people to get in touch with the appropriate agency during an emergency:people would either call their local fire department or police precinct, or they would press “0” for the operator, who would put them in touch with the appropriate emergency department.
Switchboard
In the ’50s, Americans had to either remember their local police station and fire department’s phone numbers, or have a switchboard operator patch them through.
The use of different local numbers to dial for emergency assistance was a source of concern for government officials, though, and in 1957, the National Association of Fire Chiefs was the first organization to push for a uniform number for reporting fires. Other government agencies also came forward in support of the proposal, which led the 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice to call for a nationwide number that could be used for reporting all emergencies. The creation of this kind of telephone system fell under the control of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which met with AT&T in November 1967 to determine an appropriate number. By 1968, AT&T announced that the number 911 would be used for reporting emergencies.
Part of the reason AT&T selected the sequence of 911 was because “9” and “1” were on opposite ends of the rotary dial, which would help prevent people from accidentally dialing the number. The code was also selected because it was easy to remember and could be dialed quickly.
Congress passed legislation that officially established 911 as a standard emergency number nationwide. The first 911 call was placed in Haleyville, Alabama in February 1968 by Senator Rankin Fite, who phoned U.S. Representative Tom Bevill at the local police station. In 1972, the FCC recommended that 911 be implemented nationwide. By March of 1973, the White House’s Office of Telecommunications formally recognized the benefits of 911 and urged communities throughout the country to adopt the emergency number. The White House also created the Federal Information Center, which was responsible for assisting local governments in planning and creating 911 networks in their municipalities.
Senator Rankin Fite
Sen. Rankin Fite, who placed the first 911 call in history. Unfortunately for him, he only got through to another Congressman!
The large-scale adoption of the 911 system throughout the United States was still some time away. By 1979, only around 26 percent of people nationwide had access to 911, and only nine states had enacted legislation establishing 911 systems. By 1987, 50 percent of the population had 911 access, and by the end of the 20th century, the number grew to 93 percent.
In 1999, the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act was approved to make further improvements to the 911 system’s infrastructure. In addition to dispatching the appropriate personnel for an emergency situation, 911 now also allows operators to identify the caller’s location, which speeds up the arrival of police, firefighters, or EMTs.
There were 240 million 911 calls placed in 2010, and phone companies are constantly making improvements to keep up with the demand. One example: using 911 may soon be possible via text message as well. In September 2012, AT&T announced plans to Emercreate a system for contacting 911 via text, and the company is currently piloting the system in Tennessee.
Regardless of how people contact 911, it’s still important to have signage in workplaces, hospitals, and schools that remind people about what to do in an emergency. These kinds of signs are especially important in places where employees or guests are from foreign countries – since 911 is only used in the United States, they’re unlikely to be familiar with the 911 system. Displaying appropriate signage in schools is also essential to ensuring students’ safety, and signs can act as reminders for kids about the importance of dialing 911 in an emergency situation.
There are a variety of 911 reminder signs available. For a simple, straightforward option, we offer a red 911 sign with “Emergency” written on the top of the sign and “Dial 911” at the bottom. In the middle of the sign, there’s an illustration of a telephone. All of the lettering appears in white, and the sign has a white border.
Emergency dial 911
Simple, but clear.
Customizable 911 signs are also available. One example features the word “Emergency” at the top of the sign in white lettering with a red background. The middle of the sign displays a blue telephone and numbers “911” in red, on a white background. The bottom of the sign features a blue box, where you can include a customized message in white.
Signs for the blind are also available. One sign has the phrase “In Case of Fire, Pull Alarm and Call 911” in white lettering on a red background. The bottom of the sign repeats the message in Braille. Spanish-language versions of these signs are also offered.
When choosing where to display signs, it’s important to select a location that is prominent and, if possible, located near a telephone. Employees and students should also be repeatedly reminded about the sign’s location and what to do in case of an emergency.

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