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911 is the best brand EMS

First 911 call placed and received in Haleyville, Ala. on Feb. 16, 1968; marketing and education opportunity ever since

Updated February 16, 2015

On Feb. 16, 1968 911 was established as the national emergency number, with the first call received that day in Haleyville, Ala.

Race to place and receive the first 911 call

Why there, you ask? Well, after 911 was announced as the national number, there was a race to be a part of history, with the small and independent Alabama Telephone Co. thumbing its nose at the large and powerful AT&T. It found that its local exchange in Haleyville could quickly be converted to receive a 911 call, so one Alabama politician dialed 911 while another answered, to beat AT&T with the first official call.

Call 911: a marketing success story

In subsequent decades, public safety organizations have been wildly successful in making those three numbers as well-known as the most popular commercial brands.

As noted in this interview with Jeff Clawson, M.D., the father of modern dispatch, some think we have been too successful when 911 is so frequently called for things outside the definition of “emergency.” Clawson disagrees. People call because they need help as they see it, he says. He recommends that public safety and the 911 community embrace this as the hand they’ve been dealt—and rather than complain about it, set the system up so the caller can be passed along to the right resource.

Whatever side of the debate you fall on, one thing is clear: The public needs to better understand the 911 system—and its technological limitations—as well as what they need to do to be better prepared when they do call 911.

April is the annual National 911 Education Month, a time when stakeholders are urged to conduct 911 awareness and education activities and celebrate the critical role of dispatchers. (April’s National Public Safety Telecommunicator Week.) To assist with the effort, the National 911 Education Coalition, made up of public safety, communications and industry stakeholders including the NG911 Institute, the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch and the National Emergency Number Association, is making 911 educational and public relations materials available through its “911: The Number to Know” campaign.

The Coalition was created to leverage the resources of the membership organizations serving the 911 community, said Angel Arocho, the NG911 Institute’s board chairman, in a recent interview with the National Journal of Emergency Dispatch. “There’s power in speaking with one voice,” he said, “when it comes to public education and the critical role of the public safety telecommunicator.”

911 community education opportunity

The rapid pace of communications-related technological change has made teaching people what 911 can—and can’t—do more urgent and more complicated. With 80 percent of calls to 911 coming from cell phones, this year’s campaign focuses on teaching the public to “be 911 ready” and to give clear, precise location information, Arocho says.

In 2011, the Tarrant County (Texas) 911 District commissioned a survey of 1,000 residents in the Dallas–Forth Worth area about 911. The survey found significant misinformation on a number of things, including the ability of 911 to know the caller’s location as well as the ability to send text messages to 911. Nearly one-third of respondents thought they could text 911, while another third said they were unsure. Only 34 percent correctly answered that 911 couldn’t accept texts.

Do you think your community is similarly misinformed? What are you doing to help educate your constituents?

Produced in partnership with NEMSMA, Paramedic Chief: Best Practices for the Progressive EMS Leader provides the latest research and most relevant leadership advice to EMS managers and executives. From emerging trends to analysis and insight, practical case studies to leadership development advice, Paramedic Chief is packed with useful, valuable ideas you simply can’t get anywhere else.