STAFF WRITER JENNIFER FIERRO
GRANITE SHOALS — Even a little more than 30 years ago, dialing 911 in the Highland Lakes wasn’t going to get you emergency services, even though school children were learning to do just that in class. Only two Texas cities at that time had true 911 services: Houston and Lubbock.
But one man changed that by 1987, and his efforts have probably helped save thousands of lives in the Lone Star State.
“(911 service) was very spotty,” said former Texas state representative Bill Carter. “We decided when we went into the state legislature it needed to be statewide.”
Tarrant County voters elected Carter to the House in 1983, and he stayed there until he retired in 2003. Since his retirement, Carter has settled in Granite Shoals with his wife, Virginia. One of his greatest accomplishments while in Austin probably was the one that earned him the nickname “Father of the Texas 911 System.”
On Sept. 27, the Commission on State Emergency Communications marked the 30th anniversary of statewide 911 services and recognized Carter’s contributions to the endeavor.
Three decades ago, Highland Lakes first responders were teaching kids a seven-digit number to remember if they needed police, fire, or EMS. Sure, they told kids who already knew about 911, it’s coming — eventually.
Carter made sure “eventually” happened as soon as possible.
With Houston and Lubbock serving as the models, Carter and his team studied how those cities made it work then began setting up a statewide plan to implement 911.
Carter went about tackling a number of obstacles to get the statewide system going.
Funding was one, so state officials went to city and county officials to urge them to collect money specifically designed to go to the 911 system. Then, officials appealed to the telephone companies to charge an extra 50 cent fee on residents’ monthly bills that went to the 911 system. That money helped build hundreds of call centers across the state and paid salaries for dispatchers.
Officials also had to educate Texans on providing physical addresses when they called 911 because many people used physical descriptions such of a landmark and giving turn-by-turn directions. People didn’t like the idea of their addresses getting added to some statewide database, Carter said.
Eventually, many saw the benefits of the 911 system and began using their physical addresses.
Now, when a person dials 911, the call goes to the nearest center, and the center can pinpoint the exact location from where the call is coming, even in a building that has multiple offices and numerous lines.
Carter speculated that “hundreds, probably thousands” have been saved because of the system. He noted that every year there was a dinner in Austin during which dispatchers who “had the most outstanding instances and served through very difficult circumstances” were honored.
One of the earlier stories was about a woman who was trapped in an automobile under a bridge and dialed 911. At the time, the system couldn’t pinpoint her location, but the dispatcher heard a train whistle in the background. The dispatcher found a train log and was able to locate the woman based on the time the call came in and the train schedule.
“They located her and got her and saved her life,” Carter said.
The state has added poison control centers to the 911 system, which has saved even more lives.
The former representative said the system serves as a symbol of what can be accomplished when people of all industries and professions work together for the greater good.
“They made it all work,” he said.