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Calling the emergency services

An English Rose in Georgia

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POSTED: August 31, 2017 9:00 a.m.

As we race towards September, my mind always turns to the somber anniversary of 9/11, and the terrible toll it took on the emergency services. These brave souls headed directly into danger in the burning Twin Towers in New York to save others. I have always had a strong affinity, appreciation and respect for first responders of all kinds, and this tragic event 16 years ago underscores how these outstanding people really do risk everything to protect others.

It is believed that terrorists chose this infamous date as it reflected the telephone number – 911 – which all Americans know as the single emergency number to request police, fire and ambulance assistance.

The history of this number is interesting. The idea first originated in the U.S. in the late 1950s when the National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended use of a single number for reporting fires. Ten years later in 1967, President Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended that a "single number should be established" nationwide for reporting all emergency situations.

The federal government worked with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) to find a means of establishing a universal emergency number that could be implemented quickly. In 1968, AT&T announced that it would establish the digits 911 as the emergency code throughout the United States. Why this number? It was chosen because it is brief, easily remembered, had never been used before and, very importantly, could be dialed quickly. Remember, almost all phones had a rotary dial in those days since the new-fangled push button phone was still a novelty.

On Feb. 16, 1968, Senator Rankin Fite completed the first 911 call in the United States in Haleyville, Alabama, and the service was launched. By 1987, around 50 percent of the U.S. population had access to this emergency number, and Canada also adopted it. By the end of the 20th century nearly 93 percent of the American population had access to it, and today it is close to 100 percent. Visit www.nena.org for more information.

Other parts of the world do things a little differently. When I was a child back in England, I had no idea what “calling 911” meant since the Americanization of the U.K. was nowhere near as extensive as it is today. However, it was drilled into us from a very young age that if something bad happened and we needed a policeman, ambulance or fire engine (what the British call a fire truck), then just call 999. The British system is the world's oldest single emergency service number, celebrating its 80th anniversary recently. The 999 service began after a tragic fire at a London doctor's office in 1935 in which five people died.

This led to a committee set up by the government to look at how telephone operators could identify emergency calls. The British almost chose 707 as their emergency number since it corresponds to S-O-S on the telephone dial, but 999 was easier, simpler and won the day. Initially, each 999 call triggered flashing red lights and hooters to alert exchange operators to give priority to the emergency call, but the hooters were so loud that it is reported that the operators pushed tennis balls into the horn to reduce the volume.

Today, the U.K.’s 999 service fields almost 600,000 calls a week, or around 30 million per year, according to British Telecom, the U.K.’s largest phone company. The busiest times for calls are around midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, with the busiest time during New Year’s Eve celebrations. British Telecom reports that more than 97 percent of 999 calls are now answered within five seconds, with 62 percent of calls now coming from cell phones.

Interestingly, the European Union’s emergency number is 112, as is India’s and Australia’s. Many phone companies in the U.S., the U.K., and throughout the world reroute incoming calls to 911, 999 or 112 to the host country’s emergency service system. Visit www.bbc.co.uk for more information.

I will leave you with a quote from Georgia’s own Saxby Chambliss, former U.S. senator: “The backbone of our nation's domestic defense against terrorist attacks will continue to be the men and women in local law enforcement and emergency services.”

I could not agree more, and thanks to them all.

God Bless America and all who serve to keep us safe!

 

Lesley grew up in London, England, and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or via her PR agency at www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

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