‘Value’ of 999 hailed on 80th anniversary of service rollout

BT operators answering emergency 999 calls in 1947. Picture: BT
BT operators answering emergency 999 calls in 1947. Picture: BT
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The response by emergency services to recent atrocities across the UK demonstrates the continuing “value” of the 999 service, according to officials.

Friday marks the 80th anniversary of the introduction of the emergency number, which now handles around 30 million calls a year.

The world’s oldest emergency service number was introduced following in 1937, following a fire at a London doctor’s surgery two years previously which claimed the lives of five people. A government committee was set up to look at how telephone operators could identify emergency calls, and proposed a standard nationwide number that was easy to remember.

In its first week of operation, the 999 service received more than 1,000 calls. Nowadays, the number is more than 560,000.

Nick Hale, managing director of BT’s ventures division, said the tragedies of recent months highlighted the importance of the number.

He said: “Recent events in the UK mean people are acutely aware of the work of the emergency services and the value of the 999 service.

“I am extremely proud of the BT operators and their role in 999. They are an extremely capable and committed team working at the sharp end of the most important communication services in the country.

“Countless lives have been saved over the last 80 years because of their professionalism and dedication.”

The committee tasked with looking at a new emergency number first considered using 707, which corresponded to the letters SOS on the telephone dial, and 333. Eventually, however, they settled on 999 as the most practical number.

Initially, each 999 call triggered flashing red lights and hooters to alert exchange operators to give priority to the emergency call – but the hooters were so loud the operators pushed a tennis ball into the horn to reduce the volume.

Glasgow was the second city to introduce the service in 1938, but the Second World War delayed the roll-out of the service across the UK. It reached all major towns and cities by 1948.

The early hours of New Year’s Day are traditionally the busiest time of the year for the service, with up to 9,000 calls received each hour.