Longtime Orinda resident helped streamline first response with 'E911'
By Lou Fancher
If the death June 3 of Scott Hovey, 82, went largely unnoticed by the general public, it might have suited the longtime Orinda resident. Although his dogged persistence and inventiveness played a major role in creating a vital, lifesaving emergency service -- "enhanced" or E911 -- Hovey never aspired to be a leading man.
"He cared more about getting the right things done than about getting credit," says his son, Danville resident Dave Hovey. "Dad was always about the high road and are you on it."
The elder Hovey was born in Kansas City, Mo., and grew up mostly in Winnetka, Ill. Graduating from Harvard in 1954 and finding himself attracted to computer programming after three years in the Air Force, Hovey moved to Southern California to develop computer systems for strategic air defense companies. He met and married his wife, Mary Francis "Fran" Chapin, and eventually landed in St. Louis, directing the police department's computer division.
"The overlap of police jurisdictions and telephone wiring didn't correlate in those days," his son says. "That's where dad first thought about E911."
Identifying a fundamental alignment flaw in the 911 system that resulted in imprecise call routing, delayed response times and a reluctance to install the system in high-population areas, Hovey realized that if phone companies knew who to bill for long-distance calls, a simple database could determine the right law enforcement division to link to an emergency phone call.
"That's the whole ballgame for police response times," Hovey says. "Before that, police were going to the wrong place and crank calls made 911 not useful. There could be two Oak Streets in the same 911 jurisdiction and first responders were going to the wrong place."
Hovey's vision was revolutionary enough to cause AT&T and Southwestern Bell Telephone Company to initially throw up road blocks, his son says.
"It wasn't their idea, it seemed complicated, and the companies didn't know then that cities would pay through the nose for the service."
But a $150,000 federal grant awarded in 1973 to develop a selective routing "automated 911" prototype and to study its feasibility in Alameda County brought the family back to California and launched the system that today saves countless lives and is also the precursor for Caller ID.
"If you consider different landmarks in 911 advancements, Alameda County was one of the early adopters," says Mary Boyd, external affairs vice president at Intrado, a Colorado-based information technology company specific to 911. "Without pioneers like Scott and others who have followed in his footsteps, we wouldn't have continued to see the enhancements in 911 that direct emergency response."
A former president of the National Emergency Number Association, Boyd said in remarks at a 2012 awards ceremony honoring Hovey as NENA's Founder's Award winner that Hovey had "the gift of vision not possessed by his peers."
Extending his "do the right thing" philosophy, Hovey designed the system to handle Spanish translations and eliminate preferential service by hiding the phone number until a call was answered by an emergency operator.
"Government can serve the people well and be innovative," says his daughter, Elizabeth Hovey. "When we bash government, no one says 'Take away 911.'"
At home, Hovey enjoyed music and laughter. A 45-year choir member at the Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek, the 911 innovator's tendency to greet a friend by bursting into "Hello Dolly" (substituting the person's name) dated back to his participation in Razzmatazz productions in the 1980s and Hasty Pudding Club activities during his Harvard days.
When Hovey's wife became ill, nursing Fran became his full-time occupation, which surprises none of his offspring, who in addition to Dave and Elizabeth include daughter Marcy Brown of Sacramento and five grandchildren.
"At work and at home, Dad taught us it's possible to do the right thing, even if it takes a long time," his son says.