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Pieces of the Past: 911

April 10, 2024

Homer Simpson once said: “Quick! What’s the number to nine one one!!” That might bring out a chuckle but 911 as we know it is one of those things that many of my younger readers can not remember a time when there wasn’t a “UNIVERSAL HELPLINE!

When I was growing up in Warren when you picked up the phone to make a call a friendly human immediately answered: “Number plee-as!” She (most phone operators were women) would manually patch you into the local number you wanted. If you needed police or fire you told the operator to connect you to them or have her call for you. It worked pretty well, most of the time.

In cities where telecommunication systems were more automated, Police, Fire, Ambulance, and even rescue services all had their own phone numbers. I remember when Warren moved away from operators to a dial-up system. We had a sheet that was stuck either on the wall or under the phone for all those services.

One fateful day back in 1967 in New York City, a woman was attacked and left for dead by her assailant. A crowd had assembled, but no one tried to get help. The reason? Even though there was a phone booth nearby nobody could remember who to call! The incident put Washington on notice that something needed to be done.

Work began with AT&T to establish a national emergency telephone number. Great Britain had such a number, why didn’t we? The Brits knew World War 2 was on the doorstep and set up 999 as their emergency number in 1939.
If you remember what it was like to “dial a number” it took forever for the dial to go all the way around. Dialing 999 would take forever, The FCC and AT&T agreed on 911 as the number. Mainly because people can recall it easily and back in the day the combination of numbers put the call into priority status in the equipment of the time.

With Warren’s advanced Bell digital dial-up system, Warren was ready for 911 long before cities like Pittsburgh or Buffalo. Of all places, the first documented 911 call was made in ’68 in a town in Alabama, A local government official called their member of U.S. Congress using 911. The call could have been done in Warren!

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