Though Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call in 1876 and patented his world-changing invention the same year, it took another 61 years before anyone realized that some sort of an emergency response system would be a useful addition to the new telephone network.
The realization came after a London house fire in 1935. At the time, the only way to report a fire or medical emergency was to dial “0” and tell the operators that help was needed. The operators had no way of differentiating incoming calls. Emergency situations looked exactly like everyday calls, so the operators simply picked them up in the order they came in. By the time they got to any of the calls reporting the 1935 fire, it was too late for five women, who ultimately perished in the blaze.
To help prevent such a tragedy from happening again, the U.K. implemented an emergency response system that triggered red lights and loud horns at the call center anytime someone was calling using the numbers “9-9-9.” One of the first successful calls was made on July 8, 1937, when a Mrs. Beard of Hampstead reported that her husband was chasing a would-be robber around the neighborhood. Police arrived promptly, and the thief was apprehended. Another 1,335 calls were received in the first week alone.
The U.S. didn’t install an emergency number—911, of course—until February 1968. The first 911 call was placed by Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite, from the Haleyville, Alabama, City Hall, to U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill, at the city's police station. Fite's "emergency" was definitely just a symbolic inaugural call: Not only did Bevill reportedly answer with a rather casual, “Hello," City Hall and the police station were actually located in the same building.