What do The Beatles, Spider-Man and 9-1-1 have in common? They all debuted during the 1960s. On Dec. 2, 1968, Prince William County’s 9-1-1 system went live with a single call taker, who also served as the dispatcher. The county’s system was put in place less than a year after the first 9-1-1 call was made in Haleyville, Ala. on Feb. 16, 1968.
A lot has changed in 50 years. According to an account given to the county’s Office of Public Safety Communications by former fire-and-rescue Lt. Bill Yowell, when 9-1-1 first started it was only for fire and rescue service and it was called the “fire alarm” office. At that time, the Sheriff’s Office and town police departments took emergency calls through regular seven-digit telephone numbers.
In 1968 or 1969, the first 9-1-1 office was on the second floor of the Old Bennett School on Lee Avenue in Manassas. In the early 1980s, the office was moved to what was then known as the “Bennett Annex” — a small, white building behind the school. The annex was remodeled with paneling on the walls and yellow shag carpeting to keep the noise down. “There were differing opinions as to whether that worked,” Yowell wrote in his account.
In 1985, the office moved to the McCoart Administration Building where it remained until 1988. Then it moved next door to the George T. Owens Building, which is named after Prince William County’s first police chief.
Sheila L. Ragan, the operations manager of the Office of Public Safety Communications, said that population growth and technology in the county have been the biggest drivers of change since she was hired in 1987.
When Ragan first came on, the call center handled fewer calls and sometimes the calls had to do with what would be considered oddities today. “Everything on the west end of the county used to be farms. We used to get calls about cows running in the roads. We had names of farmers, and we’d call them and ask, ‘Hey, are you missing any cows. Are you missing any horses?'”
While the patrols in the western end of the county were called for cows and horses, chickens were the big issue in the eastern end of the county, said Georgia Garrett, who has been with emergency communications for 35 years. “Down in Triangle, we would have chickens in the road. We had some in Dale City, too. People won’t believe it, but we did.”
Population growth also means that county residents are out later, which produces more phone calls, Ragan said. “It used to be at night time, everyone went to bed … and we had less calls. The mall would close. Stores would close. Everything would be closed at a certain time. Now the calls are steady 24/7.”
Technology has changed, too. Even after the advent of computers, things were still done with equipment that was a hybrid of analog and digital, Ragan said. “Your computer had a roll of paper in the back. You would enter the information then you would tear the paper off and take it to the radio, and that’s how they dispatched. Someone had to read the paper on all of the calls.” Now, the calls go directly to dispatchers, Ragan said.
People used to only call 9-1-1 on landlines. Today, more and more calls are coming in on cell phones. When cell phones first came into use, it was hard to narrow down the caller’s location if they didn’t have an address, Ragan said. Now the call takers can identify the callers’ wireless carriers and find their general locations with Google maps and narrow things down from there, Ragan said. “We can ask, ‘What’s around you?’ and we can identify buildings and find their location by zooming in on the maps. Before, we were pulling out the map books and trying to look at a map, which takes a little longer. It’s a lot better now than it was then.”
While a lot has changed over the past 50 years, there is one thing that has remained the same, said Eddie Reyes, director of the Public Safety Communications Center. “The call takers and people who work in the 9-1-1 call center are dedicated and passionate about helping people in the community.”