Roots and Wings

It's little known outside of our walls, but the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was instrumental in bringing the 911 system to life. When disaster struck the Gulf states, we had the pleasure of watching our early commitment to emergency communications bear fruit.

This is one in a series of stories about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s landmark achievements, which continue to inspire us as we address future challenges.

No one will forget New Orleans in the days after Katrina. It seemed like none of the public, political, and logistical infrastructures were up to handling the crisis. Residents were stranded on rooftops. Hospitals were flooded out. The Superdome dissolved into chaos.

At a time when nothing seemed to work, there was what the New York Times described as a “lonely island of competence:” Acadian Ambulance. It alone was well equipped to respond to emergencies in an efficient and coordinated fashion.

We were not surprised. Back in the early 1970s, when the Foundation was young, we realized that the nation’s emergency response system wasn’t much of a system at all. Ambulance crews could not communicate with other ambulance crews. Nor could they share critical patient information with their destination hospitals. Only 12 paramedic crews existed in the entire country. Nothing like the 911 system existed at all.

The picture has obviously changed dramatically—and if you want to know where the 911 concept originated and blossomed, it was in our first headquarters, a clapboard house on Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. Our first president, David Rogers, saw an opportunity to do something bold. We set to work on a solution.

We helped communities create the emergency medical system and 911 through a program in which we issued grants to 44 communities in 32 states.

Acadian Ambulance was one of our first grantees. They took the ball and ran with it, ultimately creating one of the most sophisticated emergency communications systems anywhere.

Flash forward to Katrina. When we heard the news and the praise about Acadian, we couldn’t help but feel pride in this organization to which we had provided the means to create deep roots.