In “the old days”—before direct-dial telephones—one would ring the operator and she would connect you to your desired party. In the event of an emergency, the operator (who was often local) would connect you with the fire department, police or a doctor (whom she happened to know was in-town at that moment). As phones became more common, and networks were upgraded to “direct dial” systems, getting emergency help became more complicated—and took longer.
On this day in 1937, London instituted the world’s first city-wide emergency response number: 999. Anywhere within London, one could dial 999 and be connected to an emergency services operator who would despatch the appropriate emergency services or advice. Other towns and municipalities followed-suit, each creating its own emergency response number. In time—again, as phone service became more universal—complications arose because each town or hamlet had a different number. In time these numbers were streamlined to a common, national number (like 911 in the United States). Most countries today have a single emergency response number. Canada uses 911 while most of Europe uses 112.
America’s 911 emergency number was first used in Alabama in 1968. It wasn’t until the 1980’s, however, that the United States finished changing its various emergency numbers into the universal 911. Nevertheless, there are still parts of the rural U.S. that are not connected to 911.