A call for help: 75 years of 999

IN an emergency, there’s one number we all know to call, but things were very different before its introduction in 1937, discovers Gareth Rose

IN an emergency, there’s one number we all know to call, but things were very different before its introduction in 1937, discovers Gareth Rose

IT is the most famous and frequently dialled number in the country, receiving 1.9 million calls in Scotland alone each year. Knowing to call 999 in an emergency – for a fire, car crash or an intruder creeping around downstairs – is an early lesson ingrained in our psyche.

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It is hard to imagine life without it, and today, to commemorate the emergency number’s 75th birthday, BT has given an insight into how it came into being and what the days before were like. Seventy-six years ago, the closest thing to 999 was a network of fire alarm call points set up around London in 1882, and similar ones for the police, using telephone lines, in the early 1930s.

Then an event in 1935 changed the UK’s emergency response forever. The sad story involved young Scotswoman Alexandrina Lamont from Aberdeen, who had gone to London to work as a housemaid at Dr Philip Franklin’s aural surgery in Wimpole Street. She was there when a serious fire broke out that killed five women – Dr Franklin’s wife, niece, cook, kitchen maid and Lamont, who was just 22. A neighbour had seen the blaze and tried to call the fire brigade. But people calling about an emergency dialled 0 for the operator like everybody else, and there was no way of prioritising the calls. An inquest later heard that by the time the neighbour got through, fire engines had already arrived at the scene – but too late to save the five women.

The furore that followed led to the creation of the Belgrave Committee to look into the problem of operators identifying emergency calls. It decided to create one number which would work UK-wide. It had to be three digits to work in London, and 111 – which became the emergency number of New Zealand – was ruled out because wires moving together in the wind can accidentally send the same signal. So 999 was chosen. Nowadays the number receives 5,000 calls an hour on Friday and Saturday nights, rising to 13,500 calls in the early hours of New Year’s Day.

In 1937, after the number had gone live, it was a few days before it received a single call. It was made by the wife of Stanley Beard, in Hampstead, and led to Thomas Duffy, 24, being caught red-handed as he attempted to burgle the property. By the end of the week, 1,336 calls had been made. More than 1,000 were genuine, along with 171 who simply wanted the operator, and 91 practical jokers. A further 1,896 calls came through the old 0 number. Operators were so keen to make sure 999 calls were answered as quickly as possible that they were accompanied by a red light and a loud klaxon siren in the centres. They were so loud that several operators fainted in fright when the klaxon went off, so staff used tennis balls down the horn of the klaxon to muffle the sound.

David Hay, BT’s head of heritage, says: “It’s gone from a large manual service, with thousands and thousands of operators running it over many sites to what we have today, which is about 700 operators, who do not just deal with 999 calls, and are based in seven centres across the country, including two in Scotland – in Glasgow, and a new centre in Dundee. They are highly motivated and highly trained.

“A lot of calls tend to be misdials, such as a mobile phone going off in someone’s pocket, or hoax calls or inappropriate calls that should not be made to the emergency services. That’s about half the total we receive.”

With 85,000 calls made daily, BT has tried to ease the pressure on operators by publicising some of the more inappropriate calls. Eighteen months ago, an inquiry from someone who dialled 999 because their snowman had been stolen became an internet hit. “Some of my favourites include the lady who rang up because her son wouldn’t get out of bed,” Hay says. “There was one about a hamster stuck behind the wardrobe and a woman asking how long she should cook her turkey for as she did not want to poison her family.

“We even received a call from someone who could not get through to the voting line of Strictly Come Dancing.”

But weeding out the hoaxes and the inappropriate calls is a serious business, as the operators have to make sure all the real emergencies are properly dealt with. Hay says: “If a mistake is made, and I can’t recall one, the repercussions are serious. They have to use their judgement to screen out the hoaxes and sometimes the calls are difficult because, for example, you might have a child who can’t speak properly on the phone.”

Brendan Dick, the director of BT Scotland, says: “Today, the 999 service is known for its reliability and professionalism. It’s not only the world’s oldest emergency call service, having clocked up 75 years of experience in providing the UK with a communications lifeline in times of need, it’s also one of the world’s most respected and admired services. Many people in Scotland owe their lives to smooth and effective emergency call handling by BT operators, using the latest technologies to ensure that emergency calls are dealt with swiftly and efficiently. When lives are at stake it’s vital that no time is lost.”

For many years, after the lights and klaxons were dispatched, the sequence that followed a 999 call put through to the emergency service hardly changed. But in recent years, with developing technology, things have moved on at great pace.

Patrick O’Meara, national head of ambulance control services, says: “It’s now a very complex system designed to make sure we get the right resource to the patient first time. In Scotland, the big change really happened nine to ten years ago. Prior to that if you called 999 you got put in a queue and it was more or less first-come first-served. Everyone got the same response – an ambulance with a paramedic on board. Now we have a complicated algorithm that prioritises category A, life-threatening, so that more than 75 per cent of those patients are reached in eight minutes. We all use data collected over the years for predicted analysis, so we can predict with some accuracy that there will be an emergency call in a given area.”


EARLY 1950s: around four million customer lines and fewer than half a million 999 calls

EARLY 1960s: around 7m customer lines; approximately 2.5m 999 calls made a year, rising to 4m a year by 1969

1978: 16m lines, 9m 999 calls made: 65 per cent to police, 25 per cent to ambulance, 10 per cent to fire

1988: 23 million lines - 19 million 999 calls handled by BT, now including calls from mobile handsets and use of push button phones (rather than dials) increasing numbers of false calls due to children “playing” with handsets

1991: 25m lines, 22m 999 calls

1994: 26m lines, 22m 999 calls

1996: 27m lines, 20.6m 999 calls

1998: 27m lines, 19.7m 999 calls

2000: 28m lines, 24.9m 999 calls

2001: 31.3m 999 calls. A massive increase, with half made from mobile phones, many dialled accidentally

2006: 30 million calls (50 per cent from mobiles): 56 per cent to police, 35 per cent ambulance, 8 per cent fire and 1 per cent to coastguard

2011: 31 million calls: 52 per cent to police, 41 per cent ambulance, 6 per cent fire and less than 1 per cent to coastguard


People with a telephone in their home, private subscribers, on an automated exchange would call 0 for the operator to contact the emergency services, just as they would to make a regular call. If they were on a manual exchange and did not have a dial phone, they would tap the telephone cradle to attract the operator’s attention. From a public kiosk the special “emergency call” button would be pressed so no money would be needed to secure the connection.


The Exchange Telegraph Company introduces fire alarm call points in London. A lever is pulled in a dedicated street post to alert the local fire service. The idea is extended by other telegraph companies and in other towns.


Police call points are introduced along similar lines to fire alarm call points but using telephone rather than telegraph technology.


In November a serious fire at the London surgery of Dr Philip Franklin causes the death of five women, including a young Scotswoman. The inquest hears that by the time a neighbour had got through to an operator to warn of the fire, the fire brigade had already arrived at the scene. The Belgrave Committee was set up to study the problem of operators identifying emergency telephone calls.


On 30 June 1937 the 999 service is introduced to 91 automatic telephone exchanges in London. A caller dialling 999 is connected to the operator in the same way as a regular call, but light and sound signals in the telephone exchange alert the operator that this is a priority call. If no operator is free to make the call, an operator breaks off dealing with a regular call. In the first week there are 1336 emergency 999 calls (1073 genuine calls; 171 who want the operator and 91 “alleged practical jokers”) and 1896 emergency calls using the old method of dialling 0.


The 999 service is introduced in Glasgow.


The Second World War (1939-1945) delays the expansion of the 999 service but the programme continues afterwards with Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle introducing the 999 service in 1946.


By March 1948 all the larger towns are served by automatic exchanges and the 999 service.


All telephone exchanges in Britain are automated, allowing the 999 service to go nationwide.


The 999 service is introduced for mobile phone users (replacing interim arrangements of 995, 996 and 997).


In January 1993 the emergency code 112 (used across Europe) is introduced alongside 999.


On 6 October 1998 BT launches a new free 999 information service for the emergency services. By automatically forwarding the number and address of the phone from which the 999 call has been made, call handling and vehicle dispatch times can improve by 30 seconds.


BT moves to routing all calls from fixed line by their postcode, which allows an even closer match with emergency service catchment areas and allows movement away from all numbers with the same area code being routed in the same way.


In January 2004, BT extends the 999 location information service to allow approximate locations for mobile phones to be automatically provided to the emergency services based on radio coverage of the cell tower picking up the call.