COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | LARRY STIRLING

The 911 emergency system began in San Diego

The very first 911 system got its start in front of the Old Bonita Store

Though now ubiquitous, the 911 dialing system did not always exist. Ours was the first major metropolitan installation and even ours has been operational only since 1982.

Here is the story.

Late one evening, as my wife and I approached the T intersection in front of the Old Bonita Store on Bonita Road in South Bay, we stopped for the red traffic signal there.

While waiting for the light to change, I noticed the well-lighted pay phone easily visible on the Union 76 Station on the opposite corner.

When the signal turned green for east-bound traffic, the car in front of us entered the intersection only to be smashed by a car traveling south at high speed.

Hoping to get help as soon as possible, I ran to that pay phone.

In those days, to obtain a dial tone, one had to drop a dime into one of several little round holes at the top of the phone instrument.

To report an emergency one dialed O for the operator.

When answered, I recounted the horrible crash and pleaded for assistance.

The operator asked: “Where are you?” Not knowing otherwise, I gave her the mailing address that was posted in the center of the phone’s dial.

“No!” she interrupted: “Which city are you in?” At the time we lived in Normal Heights and I was not familiar with anything in the area except the nearby, now defunct, Old Bonita Store.

She pointed out that unless I knew in which police jurisdiction the incident had occurred, she could only guess which agency to contact.

Appalled by the deficiency, I followed up the next day by calling my former SDSU roommate Walter Slater who, upon graduating, became a successful Air Force fighter pilot in Vietnam and also provided air support to our Army units in Korea.

I knew Walt’s father to be a high-level executive with ATT, then stationed in Chicago. Walt gave me his number and I contacted him about the problem and asked for his advice.

Slater responded knowledgeably that ATT was aware of the problem primarily because they were “repeatedly sued” for incorrect responses to such calls.

At that time, the ATT monopoly had no way to know which phone locations were in which police jurisdictions.

He told me that ATT was working with an inventor in Florida on a system they call 911 that would crudely trace the geographic source of a phone call via a pioneering “read-only-memory” (ROM) chip.

The crude chip featured 10 carbon tines with “knuckles” allowing the installer (remember when only the phone company could move telephones?) could break off the relevant number of knuckles on each numbered tine so that when queried by a tone sent by an authorized agency the ROM would disclose the number of the calling device.

However, in 1969, there were patent disputes and the technology was not ready for prime time.

Three years later, I was working as an administrative analyst assigned to the San Diego Police Department by city manager Kimball Moore with instructions from him “to help modernize the department.”

Our analysis had already identified the communications “business office” of SDPD as a quaint, outdated, communications rat’s nest impeding timely police responses to calls for services.

Sadly, we were galvanized into action by a disgusting front-page newspaper story that recounted the murder of a young woman being given the runaround by the SDPD and SDSO dispatchers while pleading for help.

Though she had fled her home in Poway and was calling from a San Diego city shopping center, SDPD made the mistake of asking for her address, which she dutifully gave. SDPD wrongfully told her that she should have called the sheriff and hung up on her.

The sheriff’s office asked the correct question — where are you? — and learned she was in SDPD’s jurisdiction. She was told to call SDPD and they hung up with tragic results.

Once again, I called Slater and learned that ATT’s 911 project had proceeded to maturity and they were hopeful that some public agency would give the very radical idea a try.

At that time, every public safety agency, fire, police, lifeguards, ambulances and harbor patrol, had its own emergency numbers, different in every city and county.

Getting help required navigating a confusing thicket of numbers.

In response to the murderous screw-up, SDPD accepted my staff recommendation to adopt the ATT “911” system. But I moved on to be SANDAG’s finance director, so there the matter rested until 1977, when I ran for City Council.

Having heard all about “911” during my campaign speeches in the run-up to the election, my new council colleagues unanimously agreed that the city of San Diego and, via city leadership on the SANDAG board of directors, the rest of San Diego County would undertake the complicated “standing up” of the world’s first major 911 dialing system.

Though 911 was a logical idea, there was substantial opposition from those agencies that had their own dispatch-system empires.

Being partial to my former colleagues at SDPD meant that they won the 911 empire, as did all other police departments in the county.

While politically initiated in 1978, the system didn’t become operational until 1982.

Nor did the idea spread with the speed that it should have, as other regions experienced the same self-serving opposition we had to overcome in this county.

ATT’s 911 systems were not ubiquitous for another 10 years.

Now, 33 years later, its beginnings shrouded by the fog of time, the 911 system is taken for granted.

It has vastly improved the public safety in every respect.

But it all started in front of the Old Bonita Store.


Stirling, a former U.S. Army officer, has been elected to the San Diego City Council, state Assembly and state Senate. He also served as a municipal and superior court judge in San Diego. Send comments to larry.stirling@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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