It's Been 50 Years: From 1 Call to 240 Million Calls

On February 16 we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first 9-1-1 call.

9-1-1 and the infrastructure that supports it has changed significantly since 1968 - beyond what anyone could have predicted. 9-1-1 is so critical to the fabric of emergency response today, it is hard to imagine life without it.

But, there was a time when no centralized emergency response number existed.

"If you asked citizens how to contact police 50 years ago, they may or may not have known," said Sean McCarthy, Deputy Chief of Support Services at the Nassau County Police Department in Mineola, N.Y. "9-1-1 has saved tens of thousands of lives, and now citizens often take the system for granted. But we in law enforcement we never have."

You could argue that the need for 9-1-1 always existed, but it wasn't until the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder - a famous case in which more than 30 people witnessed or heard the crime but none called the police - that a centralized number for people to call in case of an emergency was deemed necessary. Nearly four years later, on February 16, 1968, the first 9-1-1 call was made by Senator Rankin Fite from Haleyville, Ala.

Considering the evolution of the telecommunications industry, 50 years is not that long ago. It's hard to imagine what a 9-1-1 call center was like without computers, without internet and without cell phones. But could anyone have imagined how critical the 9-1-1 infrastructure would become for how we respond to emergencies?

9-1-1 is the backbone for emergency response, and our Telecommunicators - the unsung heroes - are on the front lines every day.

Celebrating 50 Years with the home of VESTA®

Airbus DS Communications, the home of VESTA, has been providing communications solutions since 1968 - the same year that the first 9-1-1 call was made from Haleyville.

Airbus was founded by Jack Fuller and when we spoke with his son John he said that the 50th Anniversary of 9-1-1 confirms his father's legacy. "My father had such good insight about being in the right place at the right time. It's rewarding to know his vision has carried on so well. He always said our equipment had to work 24/7 forever and our relationships with our customers were more valuable than anything."

Since Jack founded the business, there has certainly been a transformation in 9-1-1.

Becky Stewart, a Regional Account Manager at Airbus says she has experienced the transformation of 9-1-1 firsthand. Steward has worked in public safety for 44 years with roles ranging from dispatcher to manager. "In 1974, I had a rotary dial phone to answer calls, a radio to transmit information to first responders, and a log to handwrite emergencies with a time stamp, a pen and a piece of paper. It was very simplistic."

Stewart adds that when her PSAP first started using a computer for dispatch, there was resistance. "But within two weeks it was a different story because dispatchers became reliant on the computer. It completely changed how we did our jobs."

Raymond Chiozza, Director of the Shelby County 9-1-1 District in Memphis, Tennessee, says he couldn't have anticipated the sheer volume of calls. "When I started with the Memphis Fire Department PSAP in 1974, if we received four fire calls and five ambulance calls, it was a busy night," said Chiozza. "Today, we receive approximately two million calls a year."

Photo Caption: In 1970, dispatchers manually transferred calls using two-corded switch boards.

"Shelby County has always been on the cutting edge of technology adoption," said Chiozza. "In fact, the Memphis Fire Department was the first PSAP in the nation - two weeks before San Francisco - to adopt a CAD system and go online. Now, we use VESTA® 9-1-1 that integrates calls, texts and maps onto one system."

Photo Caption: The Memphis Police PSAP, featuring Airbus' VESTA 9-1-1 call handling solution, opened in January 2018.

It's All About Location

Today, 80% of all emergency calls come from cell phones - which provides opportunities and challenges. Everyday the home of VESTA works to find new and smarter ways to help public safety agencies keep their communities safe. Location accuracy is one area where advancements are revolutionary.

"We've made amazing progress - especially in rural communities," said Anita Pitt, the 9-1-1 Program Manager at the Brazos Valley Council of Governments (BVCOG) located in east-central Texas. "In 1995, much of rural Texas was not addressed. We took on this challenge, and with Airbus' help, we are moving toward greater location accuracy."

Our VESTA Map Local solution, for example, is breaking new ground on improving location accuracy. To give you an example of how far we've come - when a call comes in, the VESTA 9-1-1 system requests the 9-1-1 caller's Automatic Location Information (ALI), and the VESTA Map Local solution gets to work. First, it plots the call and its call type - wireline, Phase I or II, Voice over IP (VoIP), SMS or Telematics - using a unique icon on a digital map. For Phase II calls, the solution will display a confidence zone around the icon to show the caller's potential location area. It will also check the RapidSOS NG911 Clearinghouse for the caller's device-based hybrid location, a more accurate location, which it will add, if available. This means Telecommunicators now have the potential to have more accurate locations for indoor wireless calls.

In addition, the VESTA Map Local solution is one of the first to utilize the innovative Esri® ArcGIS Runtime Software Development Kit (SDK), bringing full capability of the ArcGIS platform to the VESTA Map Local solution.

And all of this happens in seconds offering PSAPs unprecedented user performance and map display speed, as well as access to powerful capabilities.

Collier County participated in the Beta study for VESTA Map Local, and is one of the first PSAP's to implement the new solution. "The technology is revolutionary," said Bob Finney, 9-1-1 Communications Director at the Collier County's Sheriff's Office in Naples, Fla. "For example, we recently had a call where a young woman severely injured her fingers. It wasn't life-threatening, but it was certainly an emergency situation. She called from her cell phone, which directed us to her home, but thanks to VESTA Map Local, we were able to tell that she was actually at her neighbor's home. In our business, saving minutes can save lives.

Mike Pedigo, Executive Director or Bexar Metro 9-1-1 Network in San Antonio, Texas adds that, "Thanks to Airbus, our Telecommunicators have the best, most accurate information available - phone numbers, addresses and maps - integrated onto the same system."

The Next 50 Years

"I think text to 9-1-1 will change how the public communicates for public safety assistance," said Stewart. "As the solution is refined, I foresee people using text as the first line of communication. An emergency phone call will become the exception, not the rule."

Today, the home of VESTA provides more than call handling solutions. We provide network services including call routing and ESInet that are the foundation for NG9-1-1. In fact, we are now a CLEC in 10 states with more to come and we are excited to be one of the first NG9-1-1 service providers in the nation offering PSAPs new choices and transparency not experienced before.

"NG9-1-1 is going to affect so many aspects of the dispatch center," said Terry Hall, Director of the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Regional 9-1-1 Emergency Communications Center in Virginia. "Telecommunicators, as an example, will be transported to the crime scene. They will import, archive and export data to first responders all of which will increase the level of public safety to citizens."

Today our heroic Telecommunicators take an estimated 240 million 9-1-1 calls a year in the U.S. - calls that save lives and fuel the passion we have at the home of VESTA to do the work we do.

We are proud to be on this journey with you, and we look forward to the next 50 years.