Twenty-five years ago, the nation’s first 911 emergency telephone system was inaugurated in this small town with a casual call from the mayor’s office to the police station.
Afterward, everyone celebrated with coffee and doughnuts.
“It was very radical, but it worked,” said Bill Frye, who installed Haleyville’s 911 system in a week in January, 1968. “We had no intention of being No. 1; it was a community service.”
Today, about 75% of the U.S. population is covered by 911, according to William Stanton, executive director of the National Emergency Number Assn. in Columbus, Ohio.
Most big cities now have enhanced systems, in which the address from which an emergency call is made is immediately available to the call-taker.
“We estimate that about 25% of the land area is covered, which obviously means that urban areas are covered and many rural areas are not,” Stanton said.
Haleyville, a town of about 4,500 in northwest Alabama, decided to institute an emergency number when the local phone company switched to an automatic system.
“When we lost telephone operators, we lost a lot of services,” said Frye, the former Alabama Telephone Co. employee who now works restoring cars. “Communications became better, but we lost emergency calls because the operators had been handling them.”
Congress had called for a separate national emergency number in 1958. The number 911 was chosen because those digits were not being used in any telephone exchange “and probably would not be used for some time to come,” said Larry Williams, a 911 sales engineer for GTE, which took over Alabama Telephone.
But disagreements arose around the country over whether calls should go to hospitals, police stations or fire stations.
In Haleyville, officials decided on the police station.
Frye shuffled subscribers to come up with two lines to the police station and installed a red phone in the dispatcher’s office.
“Then we realized we had forgot about pay phones,” he said. “So the next day we modified the pay stations so that a person could make a 911 call without having to have a dime.”
The late Rankin Fite, then speaker of the Alabama House, made the first call on Feb. 16, 1968, to Tom Bevill, then and now a Democratic U.S. representative.
“I had no idea then that the emergency system would become as big as it has,” Bevill said.
He and Fite “just shot from the hip,” Bevill said. “He said he was delighted to be making such a historic call and I responded that I was pleased to participate.
“Immediately afterward, we had coffee and doughnuts.”
At the beginning, there was no 911 training, and Haleyville’s police officers were nervous.
“They wondered what they were going to do with the calls, who they would give them to,” Frye said.
A couple of years after the system was installed, newly hired Haleyville police dispatcher Ronnie Wilson received a frantic 911 call.
“A woman said, ‘My water just broke,’ and I told her I’d get her a plumber right away,” Wilson recalled.
“Then she said I didn’t understand, and I realized she was about to have a baby, and ordered an ambulance for her.”