Amid the trials of last month’s historic winter storm, many Austinites who hadn’t experienced such extreme weather here in a generation found themselves in situations requiring emergency services, with a massive surge in 911 calls straining the resources of local first responders for the duration of the crisis. Though our dispatch system certainly showed it has some limits, we’re confident nobody had a hard time remembering what number they needed to dial — which wasn’t always the case.
The 911 system for all emergency services is now functional for approximately 99 percent of the United States population — heck, there’s even a show about it set right here in Austin — but folks who were around more than 40 years ago will likely recall a time when each emergency service had its own specific number.
“The inside cover of the Austin telephone directory has nearly 40 separate telephone numbers to call for emergency fire, medical, and law enforcement assistance,” explained the Austin American-Statesman in 1977 — meaning unless you had a head for memorization or your phone book handy in the midst of your emergency, you’d have to dial 0 and ask the operator to connect you with the appropriate aid, clearly not an ideal solution when time was of the essence.
At the urging of President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, the Federal Communications Commission and a pre-antitrust AT&T agreed on 911 as the nation’s unified emergency number all the way back in 1968, but implementation was slow — by 1979, only 26 percent of the U.S. could use the number, and Austin wasn’t among that lucky few.
A unanimous 1978 vote by City Council approved the implementation of an Austin 911 system after years of advocacy by Council Member (and later Mayor) Ron Mullen, but in the process one notable voice announced his opposition to the plan — Travis County Sheriff Raymond Frank, who claimed the 911 system was untested, expensive, and might even raise your phone bill. “Frankly, our system is working fine,” the sheriff explained to the Austin American-Statesman in 1978. “As far as I know, people are fairly satisfied with the law enforcement they’re getting.”
But increasing public interest, along with the fact that nearly every first responder in Travis County along with all of its commissioners supported the adoption of 911, eventually brought Frank on board with the idea. When the system fully rolled out in March 1982, 39 years ago this month, Austin’s 911 system was reportedly the most advanced in the state — or possibly the nation, depending on who you believe.
What made our system different was its ground-up implementation of the so-called “enhanced” 911, which automatically provided the address of a caller to dispatchers — cutting-edge technology at the time, and one of only six such systems operating in the nation. Since Austin’s new network was designed for enhanced 911 from the beginning, reporting described the system as the nation’s “most sophisticated” when it went online in 1982, but these features quickly became so common we now consider address tracking a standard feature of any 911 call. These days, you can contact 911 in Austin by text — it’s a lot easier than finding a phone book.