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Emergency 911 and Haleyville Alabama

The city of Haleyville, Alabama may be small at 7.4 square miles with a population of 4,000 people, but it made big news back in 1968. It was in Haleyville that the 9-1-1- emergency system was first implemented.

Back in the 1950’s, rotary-dial telephones and independent phone companies were still in vogue. When emergencies popped up, there was one of two ways to get help: dial the local police or fire station, or dial “0” for operator.

Dialing “0” was also the way to get all kinds of other information one might need: area codes, phone numbers, help with long-distance calls, etc. This meant telephone operators were often busy with other calls when emergencies occurred.

In 1958, Congress made an appeal for a universal emergency number – one that would be easy to remember and dial for anyone needing emergency assistance. Over the next ten years, discussions and debates took place, but little progress was made.

Sadly, the tension between the F.C.C., the President’s Commission of Law Enforcement and emergency responders slowed the process to almost a halt. Who would receive the calls? Police, firemen and hospitals each argued that emergency calls should come directly to their stations. If another system was going to be put in place, how would it work – and who would get it up and running?

Wall Street Journal published an announcement about AT&T and the FCC working to establish 9-1-1 as the new nationwide-emergency number. That’s when B.W. Gallagher, president of the Alabama Telephone Company (ATC), sat up and took notice. It seemed almost a personal affront that the “higher-ups” never bothered to consult or include smaller, independent phone companies in the decision.

Perhaps that’s what fueled his determination to be the first to implement the 9-1-1 system … and Gallagher knew just who could make it happen: Robert Fitzgerald, inside plant manager for ATC, was the one who examined schematics of the company’s 27 exchanges.

After hearing Gallagher’s proposal, Fitzgerald chose the town of Haleyville, Alabama to implement the emergency call feature. He knew the equipment there was best suited for a quick conversion to a 9-1-1 system.

What the big corporations failed to do in ten years, a handful of men in Haleyville, Alabama did in less than a week. Robert Fitzgerald designed the circuitry for the system and was assisted by technicians Pete Gosa, Jimmy White, Al Bush and Glenn Johnston when installing the nation’s first 9-1-1 system.

On February 16, 1968, Alabama’s Speaker of the House – Rankin Fite – dialed the very first 9-1-1 call at one end of Haleyville City Hall. At the other end of the building, a bright red phone rang in the police station. It was answered by Congressman Tom Bevill, who was joined by Haleyville’s Mayor James Whitt and Public Service Commission President Eugene Connor. B.W. Gallagher, the man with the goal of putting 9-1-1 on the map, was also there.

Haleyville, Alabama recently celebrated it’s 41st anniversary as “Home of Emergency 9-1-1.” It doesn’t always take big money or big companies in big cities to do big things. It just takes a person with the determination to see something through and get it done first.