How A Sneaky Alabama Town Launched America’s 911 System

Listen Now

Political enthusiasts travel to Washington and finance types can visit Wall Street, but for emergency dispatch buffs there's Haleyville, Ala.: the site of the very first 911 call.

"I think there's a great deal of pride in it," says Haleyville Mayor Ken Sunseri. "We have influenced the entire world."

The town wears its achievement with pride. A highway sign outside town declares "Haleyville — Where 911 Began." Banners hanging from street lights bear the town seal, featuring a red phone receiver and the words "Home Of 911."

Then just inside City Hall is the centerpiece: In a special alcove, a clear case holds the red rotary phone that took the first 911 call, surrounded by a display of framed proclamations and newspaper clippings. Sunseri says the famous phone gets eight to 10 visitors a week, particularly from 911 dispatchers.

But bringing that first call to Alabama meant the little guy sneaking across the finish line.

In the 1960s, a federal commission on crime recommended that telephone companies develop a three-digit phone number people could call for emergencies from anywhere in the U.S. A couple of other countries had already created three-digit systems like this.

"AT&T actually responded to the report and they came out with the designation of the three numbers ... would be 911," says Mary Boyd, a former president of the National Emergency Number Association.

In early February 1968, Bob Gallagher, the president of the Alabama Telephone Co., read about the decision and was upset independent carriers had been left out of the conversation. So he had an idea. He took it to his boss at the parent company, as he explained to NPR in 2008.

"I told him I think we can do a 911 system and beat AT&T out," said Gallagher. "And he said go get 'em. And off we went."

Gallagher knew he had to act fast to pull it off. The company picked Haleyville because it was already working on an exchange there, so it was easy to install the system. It took less than a week.

Then on Feb. 16, the red phone rang for the first time. It was a ceremonial 911 call between Alabama Rep. Tom Bevill and Alabama state House Speaker Rankin Fite. But Boyd says it represents something huge. Before 911, people with emergencies sometimes had to call multiple numbers until they found the right one.

"So if you're having a heart attack, that's not what you want," says Boyd. "Haleyville ... set the course for other communities to see it could be done."

Ronnie Wilson answered the phone at Haleyville 911 dispatch for almost 20 years and knows firsthand how essential the service can be. Wilson remembers one call when a woman's baby was choking and turning blue. He talked her through infant CPR over the line.

Then he heard the baby wail. "I knew then that we was home free," says Wilson.

He says calls like that were 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 that first 911 call went on tour to Washington, D.C., for a celebration marking the anniversary. But it will be back in its display case at Haleyville City Hall in time for the town's annual 911 festival in June.

Copyright 2018 WBHM 90.3 FM. To see more, visit WBHM 90.3 FM.