911: Who'll rescue all-purpose emergency number?

It's as obvious as 9-1-1. If you need help in a hurry, dialing three easily remebered digits that directly connect you is better than dialing 0 and pleading "Get me the police!"

Yet, 14 years after the concept of an emergency telephone number was officially recommended in the United States, less than 30 percent of the nation's citizens have access to 911.

In 1967 the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice recommended establishment of a single number for reporting emergencies. In 1968 the American Telephone & Telegraph Company announced that the three- digit number 911 was being made available for this purpose.

Haleyville, Ala., was the first municipality to adopt 911, followed by Huntington, Ind. When New York City became third in the nation, Mayor John V. Lindsay considered it perhaps the most important event of his administration.

Life (March 1, 1968) was euphoric. "It won't be long before 911 takes over as the most memorable trio of digits in American culture," the magazine said, adding that implementation depended upon cities agreeing to install it. Rep. J. Edward Roush (D) of Indiana in Reader's Digest (December 1968) agreed that the initiative had to come from each community or "the chance to make 911 a truly nationwide emergency number will slip away." This seems to have been a prophetic statement.Why?

Roger W. Reinke of the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration, US Department of Commerce) and chairman of the interagency 911 Task Force says: "It's politics and money. Municipal budgets are constrained. 911 is not worth the price."

"A larger problem is politics," he adds. "Jurisdictions will not agree on a common answering point to serve the different agencies."

A common answering point is necessary, according to Mr. Reinke, because police, fire, and medical service agencies and telephone exchange boundaries overlap. "Someone at the common answering point must say where the call goes. Public service professionals get nervous about the time taken to transfer a call to the right agency -- 15 or 20 seconds. This 15 or 20 seconds is sometimes used as an argument against 911. They overlook the time it takes a citizen to find the number to call them directly."

Congress refused to pass any of the 911 bills introduced in the 1970s, and in 1973 the Nixon administration indicated that implementation of 911 should come at the state and local level.

Twelve states (California, Louisiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida , Pennsylvania, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Maryland, and Kansas) are known to have enacted 911 legislation of one kind or another -- but only about half mandate implementation by a given date. A few require planning only.

A 1979 report issued by representatives of the NTIA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and members of the 911 Task Force showed little correlation between state legislation and 911 implementation. Among states with 911 legislation, Wisconsin provided the service for only 5 percent of its population, Louisiana for 18 percent, Pennsylvania about 30 percent.

On the other hand, a large number of Alabama communities had 911, though there was not state legislation. Alaska had no state legislation, but 911 was available to 85 percent of the population and another 10 percent could call a single number for emergencies. Tennessee, with no state legislation, had the highest number of counties and municipalities participating in 911 in the US.

State legislation is expected to help implement 911 in the future, however, by facilitating agreements between state and local governments and their public safety agencies over requirements.

What is the biggest obstacle? Apathy, the report implies. The citizen is generally apathetic in his approach to emergencies and to implementing 911 until he or someone in his family becomes a crime victim, requires emergency medical assistance, or needs the fire department.

"It is up to local community authorities to assume leadership responsibility, " concluded the 1979 r eport.

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