14 milestones that transformed emergency communications

From the first introduction in 1876 to present, emergency communications have evolved greatly. What are some of the most important milestones in dispatch history?


By FireRescue1 Staff

Every year 240 million calls are made to 911. And, according to the National Emergency Number Association, 80 percent of the calls are made from wireless devices. 

If these statistics don’t seem incredible to you, it’s time to brush up on the history of emergency communications. Here are 14 milestones that revolutionized emergency communications. 

(Photo/Pixabay)
(Photo/Pixabay)

1. Emergency telephone systems

The milestone that kicked off emergency communications happened the same year Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. In 1876, the first rudimentary emergency telephone system was implemented in Britain. 

2. Emergency call boxes

The first emergency call box was placed in Massachusetts in the 1880s. Call boxes were initially housed in kiosks to protect the inner signal boxes from the weather. They also were only accessible to select members of the community to discourage false alarms.

3. Emergency calls prioritization

In the early 1900s, all calls—including emergency phone calls—had to go through an operator. And, operators took calls in the order they came in, making it impossible to prioritize emergencies. In 1935, a call regarding a house fire in London was pushed off due to the inefficiencies of the operating system. As a result, five women perished in the fire. This event led to the idea of emergency phone lines.  

4. Emergency phone lines

In 1937, two years after the London House fire, the U.K. implemented an emergency response system that triggered red lights and loud horns at the call center anytime someone called using the numbers “999”.  

5. The launch of 911

In 1968, AT&T announced 911 would be the universal number for U.S. citizens to call in the event of an emergency. 

6. The first 911 call

On Feb. 16, 1968, Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite placed the first-ever 911 call from Haleyville City Hall, to Congressman Tom Bevill, at the city's police station.

7. The invention of the cellphone

On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper—a Motorola employee—placed a call to the headquarters of Bell Labs in New Jersey from Manhattan, marking the first mobile phone call ever.

8. Dispatcher accreditation 

As technology evolved, it became important to develop stronger protocol and training procedures for dispatchers. In 1988, IAED, an organization to help dispatchers and first responders improve patient care was formed.  

9. Adopting Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) 

Though the first versions of computer-aided dispatch were developed in the 1960s, they weren’t adopted by police departments until the late 1990s. Today they are one of the primary IT supports for communication centers. 

10. 911 tapping protocol 

In 1996, the City of New York developed a protocol to make it easier for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to report emergencies. The person reporting the emergency communicates with the 911 operator by tapping in a specific pattern with a finger, pen or key on the mouthpiece of the phone or the speaker section of the call box. 

11. Amber Alerts

America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response was named in 1996 after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old who was abducted and killed in Texas. The invention of the Amber Alert system marked the first time broadcasters teamed with local police to develop an early warning system to help find abducted children. The Amber Alert program’s success has led to similar alerts such as Silver Alerts for missing senior citizens and Blue Alerts for imminent violent threats to police officers. 

12. Analog to digital transformation

Until relatively recently, all of this communication technology relied on analog signals to carry information. Analog isn’t the most trustworthy as it can be affected by environmental factors and requires significant power to be transmitted. For those reasons, analog (1g) and even 2g technology were highly limited in what types of data could be carried.

Presently, many systems use 3G and 4G technology which has brought us to where we are today in terms of call volume and mobile capabilities. 

13. FirstNet for interoperability 

First authorized by Congress in 2012, FirstNet was developed to provide emergency responders with the first nationwide, high-speed, broadband network. As of 2017, the FirstNet network includes all 50 states, two territories and Washington, D.C. FirstNet was a major step toward interoperability between first responders. How much do you know about FirstNet?

14. 911 integration into apps 

Launched in May 2018, Uber’s 911 Assistance is a good example of 911 integrations into apps. The company's new line of security can be activated with a swipe up of the screen where riders can easily tap on the “911 Assistance” button. After a rider confirms their intention to call 911, information can be shared with emergency dispatch, including a real-time location, and details about the ride. 

What’s next?

As the computer-aided dispatch market grows in value and use, new capabilities are on the horizon. Everything from audio analytics improved by deep learning to wearable technology will continue to further emergency dispatch.  Learn more about what’s next for emergency dispatch protocols. 

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