History of Police Communications

By Supervising Public Safety Dispatcher Carol Fleischer

When you call the police department on 9-1-1 you feel confident they will know the telephone number and address from which you are calling. The Public Safety Dispatcher will ask questions and determine the priority of the emergency using the computer based telephone system. That information will then be entered into a computer aided dispatch (CAD) system. Using this computerized information the dispatcher will relay your need to the police officer in their vehicle. The police officer will receive this either on a PC based police radio or a mobile data computer located in their car. The Dispatcher will then locate the nearest officer by means of a GPS based vehicle locating system situated in the communications center. This system tracks the location of the field personnel throughout the city. The dispatcher can scan the map and locate the police officer closest to the location of the emergency. When the officer arrives he will determine if additional assistance is needed, such as the fire department or paramedics. The officer can then obtain that assistance via his hand held radio. All of this technology provides for a quicker response by emergency personnel, however it wasn’t always that way.

Communication is vital to effective public safety. The first documented police communications was in Old England where the constable carried a hand bell or rattle, sometimes referred to as a ratchet. If the constable required assistance he would sound the ratchet to alert others in the area of his need. This was a very primitive type of communication with obvious limitations.

In the late 1800’s when police officers started using vehicles in the United States, the only means of communication was a red signal light placed near major intersections. When an officer saw one of the lights on, they knew to call into the station for an assignment. Did you know that there used to be a light on the top of the Hotel Laguna in Laguna Beach for that exact reason?

The Chicago Police Department updated their signal lights in 1870 with “Call Booths” called “Private Boxes”. Only an officer or “reputable citizen” would be issued a key that would grant them access to the private box. Inside was a telegraph that was set up with a device that looked like a clock with a bell on top. The officer would move the pointer on the telegraph to one of eleven specific choices (arson, thieves, forgers, riot, drunkard, murder, accident, violation of city ordinances, fighting, testline, fire) and pull a handle. This would send a message to police headquarters alerting them of the officer’s activity. In 1880, they added telephones to the call booths that linked the officer with the police department.

The Detroit Police Department was the first city to utilize an “on the air” voice communication in 1928. Of course, they only had one police vehicle that had a radio; so all transmission went to “Cruiser Number 5”. While this facilitated the arrest of suspects, sometimes as the crime was being committed, there was a drawback. It was a one-way radio. The police department could talk to the officer, but the officer had to contact headquarters via a telephone or call booth. Even with its limitations, this new radio was truly a modern miracle.

California joined the group in 1929. Police cars in San Francisco, Berkeley and Pasadena began to equip their vehicles with radio receivers. Again, these were one-way radios. The first two-way radio was used in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1933. This connected the Police Department to nine of their patrol vehicles.

The next year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) told the police departments that they could not use their radios for communications between departments. The FCC stated they must use the telephone or telegraph. This was definitely a blow to the progress of effective communications. However, in January of 1935, the FCC met with representatives of public safety and rescinded their decision.

Now was the time for private vendors to realize the profits. General Electric, RCA and Motorola began manufacturing police radios. The cost for a police radio was approximately $735. While that doesn’t sound like much in today’s economy, it was more than the cost of the police car in 1937.

It wasn’t until 1940 that the first statewide radio system was implemented by the Connecticut State Police. California also installed the first unattended repeater station in Contra Costa County.

While the police radios were being fine tuned, agencies realized they still had a major officer safety problem. Beat cops did not have radios, and still had to use call boxes or telephones. When an officer left their vehicle, they were basically incommunicado. A major need was identified to provide the officer with a hand held mode of communication. Pulling from the design of the portable pack radios used during World War II, the first hand held radios were introduced in 1960. While they were a definite step forward, they had their limitations. The average hand held radio was the size of a brick and weighed about five pounds. These could not be placed on the officer’s belt or carried without impeding the officer’s actions. Even though hand held radios have been in use for over twenty years, there are still some agencies that do not issue them to their field personnel.

Now that the officers had two-way communication with their department and hand held radios, a new deficit was identified. There were many cases where people did not know the 7-digit phone number for their local police department or wasted valuable time locating the number. Often times they would dial “O” for operator to obtain emergency aid. Telephone operators became unofficial public safety dispatchers. The telephone company was put in the position of determining emergencies and locating the appropriate agency for the caller. Obviously the telephone company did not want that responsibility. People were calling for assistance and sometime did not know their exact location. An easily remembered means to connect the caller to the appropriate agency and identify their location was sorely needed. The 9-1-1 system was developed as the result of an AT&T proposal in Haleyville, Alabama.

Did you know that the number 9-1-1 was selected, and work started to make this a nationwide emergency as far back as the late 1950’s? It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the 9-1-1 system was introduced nationwide as an emergency telephone number. Very few areas adopted it due to the cost.

It took almost another ten years to see the implementation of the 9-1-1 system in most areas. In the beginning days of the basic 9-1-1 system only the telephone number displayed. Now the enhanced system is used in most areas. This displays not only the telephone number, but the address and the name of the business or resident as it is listed in the telephone book.

Do you know why the numbers 9-1-1 were selected as the nationwide emergency number? The committee that developed this system wanted to make the dialing as easy as possible. Remember that in 1970 many people were using rotary telephones. Apparently picking the 9-1-1 number was a long and arduous process. Everyone had their own idea. They knew they had to use the number “2” through “9” for the first digit and that the second and third digits had to be “1”. Through much deliberation a decision was made. The thought was that if someone had to call in the dark all one had to do was to slide the finger up one from the “0” on the dial to find the “9” and then go to the “1” and dial it two times. This also worked with the touch phones.

Is 9-1-1 the emergency number worldwide? The number 9-1-1 is used as the emergency number only in the United States and Canada. Some other countries do have three digit emergency numbers available. If you are traveling, it is recommended you familiarize yourself with the number in the country you are visiting.

9-1-1 has been a true-life saver for many people. Unfortunately there are still areas in the United States that do not have a 9-1-1 system in operation.

Since the inception of the two-way police radio in the 1930’s there has been a continual improvement in the technology and flexibility of the various systems. One of the most dynamic changes is occurring now in Orange County. The entire law enforcement radio system is being converted to the 800 MHz range. This allows for all public safety agencies to “talk” to one another during mutual aid situations. This mutual aid availability is vital in a major incident such as earthquakes, fires, floods and other disasters. Irvine Police Department was selected to be the first law enforcement agency in the county to convert to the 800 MHz radio system. The new system has many benefits for efficient communication that will enhance the overall safety of the community.

Over the years there have been many valuable enhancements in police communications. What does the future hold?

  • One of the projects currently working is to identify the location of those who call 9-1-1 on their cellular telephones. Cellular telephone manufacturers and providers are working on the technology to provide this service.
  • Computers are being implemented to automatically provide the officer with directions to the location of their assigned calls.

These are just a few of the upgrades being developed to improve communications between the citizen, the Public Safety Dispatcher and the Police Officer. We will see many more changes in the next decades. The potential is endless.