Answer: it was a unique number that hadn’t been used yet
An estimated 240 million calls are made to 9-1-1 in the U.S. each year. Most estimates are that about two out of every five 911 calls are accidents, pranks or hang-ups. In California, for example, as many as 45 percent of the more than 8 million cell phone calls to 911 each year are for non-emergencies, officials said. Virginia’s penal code calls 911 abuse a “class 1 misdemeanor,” which is punishable by up to a year in jail, a $2,500 fine, or both and to repeatedly call 911 in California for non-emergency reasons can lead to fines as high as $200 per call. The real question is, how did we create all of this trouble for ourselves? Meaning, where did this arbitrary string of three digits come from?
Well, our British brothers and sisters were actually the first country to set up a “universal emergency number”. After five people died in a fire in 1937, Great Britain set up 9-9-9 as their national number for emergencies. This practice actually didn’t make it’s way to America until decades later in the 1960s. Before a national number was established in the U.S. Americans had to call local police or fire departments if they needed help. Distressed callers simply had to know the phone number for each department in the area they were currently in, which may be easy when you’re in you’re hometown, but it certainly makes it a guessing game when you’re traveling or on the road. Eventually, however, 9-1-1 was established as our universal emergency number in 1968. According to How Stuff Works, “Choosing 911 as the universal emergency number was not an arbitrary selection, but it wasn’t a difficult one either. In 1967, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) met with AT&T to establish such an emergency number. They wanted a number that was short and easy to remember. More importantly, they needed a unique number, and since 911 had never been designated for an office code, area code or service code, that was the number they chose.” Congress saw no problem with this and shortly after they passed legislation making 911 the exclusive number for any emergency calling service. A central office was set up by the Bell System to develop the infrastructure for the system.
According to Gizmodo, “Just over ten years after Congress established 9-1-1 as the country’s universal emergency phone number, approximately 26% of United States citizens could dial 9-1-1 and be connected with their local emergency services. It might surprise you to learn that even just 30 years ago, in 1989, that number had risen only to 50%.” Today nearly 100% of the United States is covered and in fact, the number even spread north. Nowadays, 9-1-1 is an international distress number thanks to Canada adopting the digits as well.