First 911 call was made in small-town Alabama 50 years ago

First 911 call was made in small-town Alabama 50 years ago
Haleyville is happy to spread the word about its place in history. (Brittany Faush/Alabama NewsCenter)

The story has often been told of the first telephone call from inventor Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant, Thomas Watson, on March 10, 1886. And it’s easy to find online the historic recording of the first transatlantic call from the U.S. to Great Britain on Jan. 7, 1927.

But even many people in Alabama don’t know about the history-making telephone call placed in Haleyville on Feb. 16, 1968 — the first call made on an emergency telephone system that has saved countless lives in the 50 years since.

Steve Souder, director of the Fairfax County, Virginia, Department of 911, referred to that Haleyville call as “the call that changed America.”

“Nine-one-one is the most important number in the United States. It’s the most recognized number in the United States,” Souder said. The number is called 6.5 million times a day, he said, and 911 has saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars in property.

Haleyville celebrates 50th anniversary of first 911 call from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

For decades, all of those calls came in over telephone wires, said Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the Federal Communications Commission. But now, for example, 88 percent of Birmingham’s 911 calls are made from wireless phones.

Both Rosenworcel and Souder said the 911 system has not yet taken full advantage of smartphone technology, but that soon will change.

“We are on the verge of allowing 911 to access that (wireless caller) information so that we know as soon as that call is received exactly where that caller is at,” Souder said.

The system that got its start in a small Alabama town is now commonplace for virtually all Americans.

“I think it’s important to celebrate that it started here, because, you know, innovations — big ones — sometimes they start in small places,” Rosenworcel said on a recent visit. “I think it’s amazing that that first emergency call was made here in Haleyville.”


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