By Audrey Fraizer
Was there ever a time callers did not punch in the numbers reserved for an emergency to complain about parking tickets, request help in finding a stray cat, or to report a pizza delivered to the wrong address?
Well, in 1955—the little-known debut of emergency calltaking—the California Highway Patrol (CHP) discovered that such a number meant many things to many people, and not always what had been intended.
A dilemma common through the ensuing decades: delays in reporting and responding to situations of real danger and importance.
According to the Bakersfield Californian (March 15, 1955), the trouble began in February 1954 when the highway patrol announced Zenith 1-2000 (931-2000) as the unique number to speed the reporting of accidents and other emergencies anywhere on stretches of highway in California’s unincorporated areas.
A Zenith number was a toll-free number introduced in the U.S. during the 1950s. The calling party would simply specify “Zenith” and the operator knew not to authorize charges. The letter “Z” and “Operator” were co-located on a rotary phone. If a motorist made an error when reporting an emergency, the first twist of the rotary dial summoned the operator. The operator didn’t need to check to see if the charges were authorized—they always were.
Motorists using the “Z” number were urged to ask the operator for that number to pass along word of a bad accident, obstacles and damages potentially jeopardizing travel, and other hazardous conditions.
Zenith 1-2000 was reserved for anything, in short, that spelled highway E-M-E-R-G-E-N-C-Y.
Apparently, not everyone spelled the word the same way.
A male caller in San Francisco asked for Zenith 1-2000 for a forecast of road and weather conditions in Kansas City, Mo. A female caller residing in Concord, Calif., alerted CHP to the dead dog on her doorstep. Another male caller told the operator he had a dispute over a recent parking ticket.
CHP Commissioner B.R. Caldwell was gracious in reminding the public of the number’s true intent. CHP was happy to help people with problems unrelated to the highway system, but don’t use Zenith 1-2000 to report them. CHP’s local numbers, listed in the telephone directory, were the numbers to report incidents unrelated to emergencies on highways in unincorporated California.
The reason is simple, Caldwell explained.
A story in the same edition of the Bakersfield Californian explains, “A person calling Zenith 1-2000 will be connected directly to the one of the patrol’s emergency radio dispatch stations. These stations were set up to handle emergencies. If the telephone lines are tied up by routine calls, it could mean a delay in sending help to a bad accident.”
Poor driving behaviors, however, were game in choosing the number to dial, according to Caldwell. CHP officers were particularly on the lookout for potentially hazardous violations, such as speeding or moving too fast for conditions, failing to yield the right of way, turning improperly, or driving while intoxicated.
These four types of traffic hazards caused 62 percent of all traffic accidents in the state and accounted for 105,437 violations in 1954, prompting the Zenith 1-2000 emergency phone number.
As direct-dial toll-free service declined in cost, the once-popular Zenith toll-free numbers nearly disappeared. Telephone companies in most service areas have stopped assigning new Zenith numbers, although the exchange is credited as the catalyst to the universal emergency number 9-1-1 used throughout the U.S., which, like its predecessor, experiences a high volume of non-emergency calls.
Although the number might no longer exist in California highway reporting, the name Zenith has not been lost to state history. Zenith 1200 is the official name of CHP’s magazine that in 2014 celebrated 60 years of continuous publication.