Kitty's Story

Note: Kitty's story is credited in part to the article published at: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/history-of-911-americas-emergency-service-before-and-after-kitty-genovese/.

The brutal 1964 murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese is said to be the impetus for America's 9-1-1 emergency call system - the one we've relied on for the past 50 years.

In the early hours of March 13, 1964, 28-year-old bar manager Kitty Genovese was brutally raped and fatally stabbed outside her NYC apartment in the borough of Queens. Kitty had been dead for two weeks when The New York Times published a shocking account of her killing. The headline read, "37 WHO SAW MURDER DIDN'T CALL THE POLICE," a narrative that went viral, with other papers and media outlets running the story. A public furor erupted, and Kitty's case caught national attention. In the immediate aftermath, local officials joined a national campaign to create a unified emergency response protocol.

Kitty Genovese (photo courtesy Kew Gardens)

The Genesis of 9-1-1

Up until the late 1960s, there was no centralized number for people to call in case of an emergency. If someone needed to contact the police or fire department, they called the nearest station. Another option was to dial "0" to reach a telephone operator and then be connected.

By 1968, AT&T - which at the time operated nearly all telephone connections in the U.S. - established a 9-1-1 line. Why that number? They wanted a number that was short, easy to remember and unique, and 9-1-1 had never been used as an area code or service code. This was also back when rotary dial telephones were still the primary type of phone so the shorter the number, the better.

It was February 16, 1968, when the first call was placed to 9-1-1. It was made by Senator Rankin Fite in Haleyville, Alabama. In fact, the red rotary phone that he used to make it is still on display in Haleyville, and the city hosts a 9-1-1 festival every year to honor the historical moment. Today, decades later, 9-1-1 is embedded in the American culture - even children know to call 9-1-1 in an emergency. Yet, it was not an easy or quick journey to get here.

It would take another 10 years after Senator Fite's call - about three years after Kitty was killed - before the U.S. would take steps to create the 9-1-1 system. President Lyndon Johnson's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice issued a report recommending that citizens have the ability to contact police departments utilizing a single telephone number. By the late 1970s, only 26% of Americans had access to 9-1-1 service. Many cities didn't implement 9-1-1 service until the mid-1980s (LA, for example, didn't have 9-1-1 service until 1984), and by this time, only 50% of the United States had 9-1-1 coverage. Today, approximately 96% of the geographic U.S. is covered by some type of 9-1-1, but progress has given rise to new obstacles.

The Rise of Cellphones

In 1968, no one could have predicted that eventually 80% of 9-1-1 calls would come from mobile phones. Many 9-1-1 call centers manage hundreds to thousands of 9-1-1 calls daily, and dispatchers must work with minimal information from cell towers and GPS to locate each caller. Their feats are extraordinary amid the challenges a mobile society presents.

It is time to overcome these obstacles and meet the needs and demands of our communities. That's why, on the 50th anniversary of 9-1-1, we are excited to share the news of the release of the new groundbreaking VESTA® Map Local solution, helping Telecommunicators and first responders have more precise locations to save more lives.

Kitty's Contribution

On that fateful night in March 1964, people did not respond to Kitty Genovese's blood-curdling screams. But her screams have been resonating for years. Yes, Kitty, we hear you, and your story continues to save countless lives.

Learn more about the VESTA Map Local solution and its powerful abilities to help you find the most accurate locations for your 9-1-1 callers.