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9-1-1 Turns 50: A Grand Lady Comes of Age

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2018-02-15
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Fifty? You can’t be serious! Even though it’s not polite to ask someone their age, your birth was really big news around the public safety family, so everybody pretty well knows.

They’d been waiting for a while for someone to bring them together. Besides their unified goal to protect the public, just about everything else was not standard back then. Each fire, ambulance, and police department had their own number and oftentimes radio channel. And although your cousin Interoperability was still just a gleam in an engineer’s eye, you were hard at work holding up your end of the bargain from day one. 

While I wouldn’t be a part of the family for another two years, I still remember your birth announcement. Does being born in Haleyville, Alabama make you a southern belle, or in your case is it a southern Bell? No matter. If it takes a village to raise a child, you certainly were not without an entourage!  For over a decade, fire chiefs were awaiting your arrival, then finally law enforcement, the Federal Communications Commission, AT&T and others got on board. The rest, as they say, is history.

Even as a baby, you had so much to offer. You made life simple. People could never forget you! And, you gave away things that had always cost money before. No wonder that when you were less than a week old you traveled to Nome Alaska. But you didn’t stop there. Even though you became selective as a toddler, by the time you were 11, more than a quarter of the people in the United States had opened their doors to you. With your youthful energy you doubled that figure by the time you hit 19.


When I became a firefighter in 1970 and a dispatcher in 1972, you weren’t around my town, but those in the Big Apple had already gotten to know you. Even though you were only twenty miles away, you might as well have well been on the other side of the world. I finally got to meet you firsthand in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where I introduced you to folks there in February, 1990. You were 22. Many of the university students had seen you somewhere else before, but some of the locals were suspicious. I can tell you that your adoption took a lot of paperwork! But, as is always the case, your openness and accessibility charmed one and all, and you live happily ever after there today.

Never the one to remain stagnant, you made several improvements over the years. “Enhancements” was the term you used. If you were happy, we were happy, but I wouldn’t be a true friend if I didn’t tell you that sometimes too many enhancements made it hard to recognize the original that we all knew and loved. Take these wireless phases you went through. We always knew where you were before. You let us know immediately. Now? We’re supposed to accept “I’m closest to this tower” as an answer? Please! Still, this came about, in part, from our collective inability to say “no” and to try and share your benefits with all.

It pains me to say that your willingness to please was not appreciated by everyone. You were oftentimes abused, and when you were, little was done about it. As busy as you were, some people would call you then just hang up. Can you imagine? And then – I don’t know how to put this delicately – thousands of people every year dialed you with their, er – well, by sitting on their telephones. Get the picture?

Even though you have been on the job from the cradle forward, you never stop trying to grow and improve. You’re hard at work 24 x 7 x 365 in all but 4% of the geographic United States, while also holding down the fort in Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, and a host of other islands and countries. I’d love to see your passport! I’m not sure that any one of us has been more impacted by digital technology than have you, and you have bent over backwards trying to accommodate Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), text messaging, and all the other features that have been developed for consumers while we just sat by and took you for granted.

So, it’s not unexpected that you’re telling us that your retirement is forthcoming. I suspect that analog backbone of yours could use a rest. You’ve done more than anyone could have asked of you. Like you, I have no idea where all the time went, but wasn’t it one heck of a ride? So thanks, on behalf of all of us, for your service, Jenny. What? How do I know your name? Well, it’s simple. You can’t have a next Jen without a first, can you?

With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in four states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community. See 

50 Years of 9-1-1: Recollections from the Front Line

50 Years of 9-1-1: Technology Fuels Ongoing Evolution of 9-1-1

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

Countdown to 9-1-1's 50th!



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