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50 Years Ago, How A Small Alabama Town Pioneered The First 911 Call


In an emergency, you call 911. It's drilled into us from a young age, but it wasn't always that way. In fact, the first 911 call was only made 50 years ago this month. Andrew Yeager of member station WBHM has the story of how a small town in northwest Alabama became the birthplace of our national emergency number.

ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: A sign near the highway south of town declares Haleyville, where 911 began. Banners hanging from streetlights bear the town's seal with a red phone receiver and the words home of 911. Then just inside the entrance to city hall...

KEN SUNSERI: Well, we have a display here for all the 911 proclamations and information and also the phone itself.

YEAGER: ...The red rotary phone that took the first 911 call sits in a clear case. Haleyville Mayor Ken Sunseri says it gets eight to 10 visitors a week, particularly from 911 dispatchers. That call, he says, is what put the town on the map.

SUNSERI: Well, I think there's a great deal pride in it and the fact that, you know, we have influenced the entire world right now.

YEAGER: But bringing that first call to Alabama meant the little guys sneaking across the finish line. In the 1960s, a federal commission on crime recommended telephone companies develop a single phone number to call for emergencies. Mary Boyd is former president of the National Emergency Number Association.

MARY BOYD: AT&T actually responded to the report, and they came out with the designation of the three numbers to use would be 9-1-1.

YEAGER: The president of the Alabama Telephone Company, Bob Gallagher, read about the decision. He was upset independent carriers were left out of the conversation. So he had an idea. He took it to the company's owner as he explained to NPR in 2008.


BOB GALLAGHER: So I told him I think we can do a 911 system and beat AT&T out. And they said, go get them. And off we went.

YEAGER: Gallagher knew he had to act fast to pull it off. The company picked Haleyville because they were already working there. So it was easy to install the system. It took less than a week. Then on February 16, 1968, the first 911 call. It was a ceremonial call between two Alabama politicians. But Mary Boyd says it represents something huge. Before 911, people with emergencies sometimes had to call multiple numbers until they found the right one.

BOYD: So if you're having a heart attack, that's not what you want. So for Haleyville to actually be our pioneer in our country set the course for other communities to see it could be done.


YEAGER: Ronnie Wilson answered the phone at Haleyville 911 dispatch for almost 20 years. Over lunch at a local restaurant, Wilson remembers one call when a woman's baby was choking and turning blue.

RONNIE WILSON: I told her to place the baby in your lap upside down. With two fingers, mash in the small of their back, you know, and press them gently, you know, up and down. And then I heard that (imitating baby crying). Well, I knew then that we were home free, you know. And then she just grabbed the phone and says, oh, I love you and hung up.

YEAGER: Wilson says calls like that are very rewarding. But there were other cases when he knew immediately he'd have to call the coroner. It's the nature of the business, he explains. The red phone that took the first 911 call went on tour to Washington, D.C., for a celebration marking the anniversary. But it'll be back in Haleyville for the town's annual 911 Festival in June.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Yeager. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Yeager