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911’s golden anniversary

Feb. 22, 2018

Photo of a 911 dispatcher.
Photo: Today, Minnesota has 104 public safety answering points (PSAPs) – you probably know these as 911 dispatch centers.

Doesn’t it seem like 911 has always been around? It’s hard to imagine a time when, in an emergency, you couldn’t pick up a phone, dial three little numbers, and know that first responders would be on their way in a matter of minutes. But did you know that has only been possible for 50 years?

On Feb. 16, 1968, Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite picked up a phone in Haleyville City Hall and made history. He dialed 911 and was connected to the police department: the world’s first 911 call. So this month, we celebrate 911’s 50th anniversary.

Of course, the 911 network didn’t exactly crop up overnight. In Minnesota, for example, many cities and counties had 911 networks starting in the late 60s. But it wasn’t until the 80s that it was implemented statewide.

Today, Minnesota has 104 public safety answering points (PSAPs) – you probably know these as 911 dispatch centers. And they take an average of 3 million calls for help every year. Anything that gets that much use needs to be well-maintained, and it’s the Department of Public Safety’s Emergency Communication Networks (ECN) division’s job to coordinate that maintenance.

But ECN doesn’t stop at maintaining it. They also improve it, and that means keeping up with today’s technology and adapting to the ways in which people now communicate. That’s why ECN places a high priority on their Next Generation 911 initiatives. So far, they have moved all 104 PSAPs from analog to an internet-based backbone. Among other things, this made it possible for PSAPs to accept texts, thus paving the way for ECN’s 2017 statewide launch of the Text-to-911 program. Those in an emergency are still encouraged to call if they can, but now they can text if they can’t. This is especially valuable in instances where speaking would put someone in danger.

Next up is enhanced location accuracy, which is just what it sounds like: it will improve location accuracy for calls and texts made from cell phones (it’s not unlike the technology that allows your Uber or Lyft to find you). Until then, it’s very important to tell a dispatcher where you are when you call for help. This should include exact addresses, cross streets or well-known landmarks.

Here’s hoping you never have an emergency that requires you to call 911. But if you do, rest assured that help will soon be on the way because of 50 years’ worth of hard work and ingenuity – and there are many more to come, all in the name of keeping Minnesotans safe.