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In The Beginning
Author: Gail Koger
Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
An Insider’s View of 9-1-1 History
By Gail Koger
In the beginning, there were no dispatchers or phones and 9-1-1 was just a fantasy in some poor cop’s mind. How the heck did the public get help? How did Marshal Dillon know Miss Kitty was in trouble? Screaming loudly might help. Jumping on your horse and riding like crazy to the nearest Marshal’s office was another option.
One of the first documented police communications device was in Old England where constables carried a hand bell or rattle, referred to as a ratchet. If the constable needed help, he would sound the ratchet to alert the others. And if that didn’t work, you pulled out your trusty nightstick and gave ’em hell.
Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone on June 2, 1875. Before that, public safety was served by the town criers, who would walk the streets of a town and cry out for help. In the West, they were called night watchmen. Their only weapon was a lantern and a loud voice.
In the 1800’s, most large cities, like Phoenix, Los Angeles or Denver had call boxes installed for the beat officers to communicate with headquarters. Inside the small metal box was a telegraph that was set up with a device that looked like a clock with a bell on top. The officer would move the pointer on the telegraph to one of eleven choices; arson, thieves, forgers, riot, drunkard, murder, accident, fighting, violation of city ordinances, test line or fire, and pull a handle. This would send a message to cop central alerting them of the officer’s activity. But no signal for I’m getting my butt kicked or shots fired. The poor guy had no one to depend on but himself. But, back then, Marshal Dillon was hired for his ability to pull the trigger first. Five years after the invention of the telephone, most departments added them to the call boxes. I’m sure the beat officers were thrilled with the new flanged device that allowed them to actually call for help.
In the late 1800’s when officers started using vehicles, most departments had the bright idea of using a red light placed near a major intersection to alert the beat cops that they were needed. At night, the bat signal was a great idea. During the day, not so great.
In the 1920’s, the Glendale Police Department in Arizona, lacked radios and even a dispatcher. Madge Ulrich the local telephone operator would take the messages about crimes committed and turn on a red light on the top of the water tower to summon officers. Madge would then yell out the upper floor window of the telephone office and tell them where they needed to go. Not very efficient but it got the job done.
The Detroit Police Department was the first city to employ an “on the air” voice communications system in 1928. The downside was they only had one police vehicle that actually had a radio, so all the transmissions went to Cruiser Number Five. While this helped their arrest stats, there was a big hitch in the system. It was a one-way radio. If the officer wanted to talk to cop central, he had to find a telephone or call box.
The first two-way radio was used in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1933. And I’m sure all nine officers did a happy dance to have their cars equipped with the modern miracle called radios.
On July 8, 1937, Britain implemented its 999 emergency telephone system which served both police and fire departments. The public uproar about the delay in reporting a five fatality fire on Wimpole Street got the system up and running in a relatively short time.
It wasn’t until the 1940’s that police radio systems became widely used. But a majority of the beat cops still didn’t have radios and still had to use call boxes or telephones to communicate with the dispatcher.
Another interesting tidbit, the Glendale Police Department got its first two-way radios in 1940. But the first dispatcher, Virgil Glidden, wasn’t hired until 1949. Wondering how the calls were dispatched? Yep, you guessed it, the bat signal. The good ole’ red light was still used to signal the officers.
In the 1950’s, independent phone numbers became very common. If you needed the police, you dialed the police station. If you had a fire, you called the fire department. If you needed emergency help, most people dialed the operator. Then she would ring the correct department. The large volume of emergency calls going to an untrained operator lead to delays in response times and getting accurate information to the officers or fire fighters.
There were very few female dispatchers or call takers. The complaint board (call takers) was handled by trained male police officers who had to have at least five years experience in the field. Routine calls were generally sent by a conveyor belt to the radio room where the dispatchers (also officers) transmitted them to the correct beat cop. In Los Angeles, when an emergency call came in, the complaint board officer would press a button and his telephone conversation would be carried over “hot-shot” loudspeakers installed in the detective’s offices to alert them to crimes in progress.
The idea for 9-1-1 came about in 1957, when the National Association of Fire Chiefs wanted to establish a nationwide number for people to use to report fires. But the first 9-1-1 system wasn’t set up until 1968.
Portable radios weren’t introduced until 1960 and were designed from the portable pack radios used during World War II. When the officer left his vehicle, he had been basically cut off. If he needed help, he had to make it back to his car or borrow a phone. This made catching bad guys a whole lot harder. The first portable radios were the size of a brick, weighed five pounds and carrying those suckers on your belt had to have been a nightmare.
In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended that a short, easy to remember number be established nationwide to report emergency situations. In 1968, AT & T jumped the competition and announced it would use 9-1-1 as the emergency code throughout the United States. Congress backed AT & T’s proposal and passed legislation allowing the use of 9-1-1 as a standard emergency number.
On February 16, 1968, Senator Rankin Fite completed the first 9-1-1 call to be made in the United States in Halleyville, Alabama. Canada also chose to adopt 9-1-1 as its emergency number and unified the concept, giving 9-1-1 international stature. Similar systems are in use in several European countries. Belgium uses 900, Denmark, 000, Sweden 80000 and Japan 119.
I started as a police aide for the Glendale Police Department in 1976. As one of the few women in the police department, I was a Jill-of-all-trades. I took the calls for service, dispatched the officers to said calls, filed, did hourly jail checks, bonded-out the prisoners, fingerprinted the bad guys, administered D.U.I. breath tests, took prisoners to court, searched the female prisoners and, my personal favorite, I got to go on search warrants. It was so much fun watching the detectives tear the houses apart. Yes, I’m a sick puppy.
Back in those days, our department didn’t have 9-1-1 yet. When you answered the phone you tried to get as much information as fast as you could. I still remember a woman screaming hysterically for help before the line was abruptly disconnected. I didn’t have a clue who she was or where she was calling from. Feeling that helpless is really horrible and I prayed that she would call back. She never did. Her husband called in later, stating he had just shot his wife. And lucky me, I got to keep him on the phone until the officers arrived. By keeping him on the phone and talking to me, not only did I calm him down, but I provided a strong link in the chain of evidence. He pled guilty to first degree murder. The wife’s crime? She had run up the credit cards. If we had our 9-1-1 system in place, I might have been able to save her.
In January 1980, AT & T began developing the enhanced 9-1-1 system, which included automatic number and location identification. This allowed emergency dispatchers the ability to instantly identify the caller’s telephone number and their exact location. A few years too late for my murder victim, but it did allow me to save a few more from her fate.
The Glendale Police Department, along with every department in Maricopa County, finally got its 9-1-1 system in September of 1987. The system was desperately needed as Maricopa County covers 9,200 square miles of desolate desert, sprawling cities and barrios. It’s also the home of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the toughest sheriff in America. You know, tent city, pink underwear, and chain gangs? He and Marshal Dillon have a lot in common. Both are quick on the trigger.
We’ve come a long way from picking up the receiver and waiting for an operator to answer with, “number please.” Today more than ninety-five percent of the United States has access to the 9-1-1 emergency system. The public takes for granted the ability to dial 9-1-1 and be instantly connected with an emergency dispatcher. Unfortunately, what they consider to be an emergency greatly differs from what we know is an emergency. A plugged toilet is not a life threatening emergency. No matter how badly you have to go.
In the 1990’s wireless phones became all the rage. Everyone had to have one. But they also created a big problem. Cell phones weren’t equipped with automatic number identification and automatic location identification like your home phones. They also might not be routed to the closest 9-1-1 center. If the callers were unable to talk or didn’t know where they were, they were basically out of luck. I had a hysterical woman trapped in a car with a suicidal man, carving himself up with a knife; and she had no idea where she was. Since I was very familiar with the city, I was able to locate her through her description of the area. The officers arrived in the nick-of-time to save her friend from traveling to his final destination. Some weren’t so fortunate.
Thankfully, on October 1, 2001 Phase II of the wireless system allowed the 9-1-1 centers to receive the number of the person calling and the location of the cell site or base station transmitting the call. This allowed us to track down a gentlemen going into diabetic shock and save his life.
By September 11, 2012 a new wireless system will provide even more precise location information, accurate to the closest 9-1-1 center.
Technology has given us another new problem, internet phone service. Sure, it’s a cheap, quick, and easy way to make calls. But, that cheap phone comes with a big liability. A lot of the phone services don’t have the ability to automatically call 9-1-1. And if you are able to dial 9-1-1 on your internet phone service, it may not be routed correctly. I once received a call from some poor guy in Thailand. Transferring him to the language line for an interpreter really slowed down getting him the help he needed. If the caller is unable to talk or doesn’t know his address (this happens a lot) his problem just got a whole lot worse.
Internet phone providers are not currently government regulated and there are no 9-1-1 emergency calling requirements in place. That cheap phone service comes with some really big risks and kicks you back to the days that you needed to know your local fire or police department’s numbers.
The fascinating metamorphoses of police dispatching from the 1800’s to present day is usually found in police museums and some online sites. The Glendale Police Department’s museum is one of the best I’ve seen. Of course, I’m a bit prejudiced. Go down to your local museum and spend an hour. The news articles, officer’s notepads, letters, and a variety of old photographs are well worth your time. You’d be surprised at what you learn. I was.
About the author:
Gail Koger retired from the Glendale Police Department in Arizona as a Communications Specialist in 2007. Her first book, The Ghost Wore Polyester, was published by Crossquarter Publishing and was a semi-finalist in the Writer's Network Annual Competition.