9-1-1 is designated as the universal emergency number for the entire United States

If an ambulance or immediate assistance from the fire department or law enforcement is needed, call 9-1-1. Never use this number for prank calls or to obtain non-emergency information.

When telephone service first became available in the United States, calls were completed with the assistance of an operator who used a switchboard to manually connect the caller to their recipient. If you had an emergency, all one needed to do was pick up their phone and tell the operator what kind of help was needed and where.

Once telephone technology advanced to the point of rotary dial telephones, this simple system no longer worked. As early as 1937, Great Britain began experimenting with a national emergency number. In 1959, the Canadian city of Winnipeg was the first North American city to institute a similar emergency telephone number. Around that same time, in 1957, in the U.S., the National Association of Fire Chiefs began advocating for a nationwide emergency telephone number for reporting fires. It wasn’t until 1967, when the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended a single number for reporting emergencies be established nationwide, that action really began on the project. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), tasked with establishing such a system, worked closely with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT &T) to make it a reality as quickly as possible. On February 16, 1968, Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite, placed the first 9-1-1 call marking the culmination of the long-awaited service.  It took several more years, however, for the number to become widely known with many municipalities having no 9-1-1 service until the mid -1980s.

Today, virtually all adults and most children throughout the U.S. are aware of the 9-1-1 system and the important role this service pays in our emergency response and disaster preparedness system. Currently, over 98 percent of U.S. residents have access to 9-1-1 according to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) estimating that in the U.S. 240 million calls are made annually to 9-1-1.

For those callers who are non-English speaking, many 9-1-1 centers have bilingual staff. If none are available when a call is made, a language line service can be utilized that offers translations in more than 40 languages. Callers are also trained to answer emergency calls from those with hearing/speech impairments whether or not the individual is using special equipment and services such as a TTY/TDD (Teletypwriter/Telecommunication Device for the Deaf), VRS (Video Relay Service), IPR (Internet Protocol Relay), or a regular phone. Over the years, legislation has been enacted federally and by states to ensure optimal 9-1-1 service exists and provide for its continued funding.

The increasing use of cellular phones, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), video chat, text messaging  and other modern means of communicating has  created new challenges for many existing 9-1-1 systems.   Call centers found that the traditional technology 9-1-1 systems used to identify a caller’s location and telephone number did not work with calls from cell phones. If the caller them self was not able to clearly identify their location, critical response time could be delayed. Recent statistics suggest 30 – 50 percent of 9-1-1 calls are wireless calls. In fact, nearly 30 percent of U.S. households no longer have land lines and rely totally on wireless for phone service. Because of these changing demographics, most 9-1-1 systems now have Enhanced 9-1-1, also known as E9-1-1, with the capability to identify the phone number and location of 9-1-1 calls made from a wireless phone. Because of these ongoing technological advances in how we communicate with one another, 9-1-1 systems are continually upgrading to meet the needs of their users.

If you are not sure when it is appropriate to call 9-1-1, you may want to visit one of several websites to view a list of examples of situations in which it is and is not a legitimate reason for calling 9-1-1. Remember that tying up the 9-1- 1 line with a trivial questions or as a prank may make it difficult for a real emergency to get through. In many locations, you can be charged with a crime for making non-emergency or prank calls to 9-1-1. Several organizations provide helpful tips for calling 9-1-1. NENA’s Top Ten Tips for Calling 9-1-1 remind callers not to hang up if they do call 9-1-1 by mistake and to make sure their home address is clearly posted both at the driveway entrance and on the house itself to assist emergency responders in quickly locating them during an emergency.

Other fact sheets address specific 9-1-1 topics for teens, children, parents and adults in general. Several state 9-1-1 organizations have online activity pages for educating children about using 9-1-1. These include puzzles and games for youth as well as resources for parents and teachers. Regardless of your state of residence, pages such as those posted by Texas, Maine and Illinois provide useful information for teaching children of all ages about 9-1-1.

You also may wish to visit the Michigan State University Extension website for additional information and resources related to emergency situations. If you cannot find what you are looking for on the website, you might consider using their Find an Expert  option or contacting your local county Extension office.