The world’s oldest emergency service – 999 – is celebrating its 80th birthday today.
The service began following a fire at a London doctor’s surgery in November 1935 that resulted in the deaths of five women.
After the fire, a committee was set up to look at how telephone operators could identify emergency calls.
At that time, people with a phone at home who were subscribers on an automated exchange would call 0 for the operator to contact emergency services in the same way as they would make a regular call.
It was suggested that an easy-to-remember nationwide number be created for emergencies – the first suggestion was 707 (from the letters SOS on the phone dial). Then they considered 333 but finally settled on 999.
The 999 service began two years later, in 1937, handling more than 1,000 calls during its first week, a number that has grown to around 560,000 calls a week and around 30 million calls a year, according to BT.
Each 999 call triggered flashing red lights and hooters to alert operators in the exchange to give priority to the emergency call. The hooters were apparently so loud that the operators pushed a tennis ball into the horn to reduce the volume until modifications were made.
The service was extended to Glasgow in 1938 but the nationwide roll-out was delayed by the arrival of the Second World War.
Image: Around 62% of emergency calls are made from mobile phones
Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle got the 999 service in 1946, all major towns and cities were covered by 1948 and every telephone exchange in Britain was automated to allow the service by 1976.
Hoaxes and silly calls are now regular subjects of news stories but these were a feature of the service from its very beginning. Even in the first week, of the 1,336 calls, there were 91 “alleged practical jokers”.
Today, around 35% of calls do not involve requests for help – most of these are made by children playing with home phones or by people accidentally dialling 999 or the European emergency number 112.
The busiest times are around midnight on Fridays and Saturday, with the service taking around 5,000 calls an hour but the early hours of New Year’s Day can see up to 9,000 calls an hour.
Even so, call handlers manage to answer 97% of calls within five seconds.
Image: Two year old Isabelle Keeling of Bournemouth is one of many children who have saved a parent (mum Joanne) by calling the emergency number
BT Ventures managing director Nick Hale 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.
“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.”
:: When a caller dials 999 they are asked which service they require. Here are some of the stranger and sillier responses:
Caller: “I’m sorry to call 999 but I was looking for 101 but I don’t know the number.”
Young caller (after requesting Mountain Rescue): “I’m on the top bunk and I can’t get down.”
Caller: “I need the police please it is my daughter’s wedding day and her dress doesn’t fit anymore. I need the police to come and help me get her in it.”
Caller: “I need an ambulance, my husband has lost his pyjamas and he cannot breathe without them.”
Caller: “I need to cancel my hairdressers’ appointment, it’s an emergency and I can’t get through to the salon.”
Caller: “There’s a seagull with a broken arm.”