999 is world’s oldest emergency call service.
On 30 June 1937, the capital’s new emergency telephone line was unveiled. A notice in the Evening News advised the public how to use it.
Only dial 999… if the matter is urgent; if, for instance, the man in the flat next to yours is murdering his wife or you have seen a heavily masked cat burglar peering round the stack pipe of the local bank building.
If the matter is less urgent, if you have merely lost little Towser or a lorry has come to rest in your front garden, just call up the local police.
By Keith Moore BBC News
Before the introduction of the 999 system, to make a telephone call for help you either dialled the number of the fire, police or ambulance station directly, or dialled ‘0’ for the operator at the telephone exchange.
Dialling 0 and asking the operator for police, fire or ambulance had been the recommended method since 1927. Another method for calling the police in an emergency, was to ask the operator for Whitehall 1212 – the Information Room set up at the Metropolitan Police’s HQ at Victoria Embankment.
There was a lot of opposition to policing in London when it was formed in 1829. Some people objected to it on cost. Some people saw it as a military force being imposed on London and a great effort was made to try and make them blend in with the public,’ says Neil Paterson, the manager of the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre. ‘Ironically, at the turn of the century, the police resisted having telephones put in the station. They thought it would be embarrassing for members of the public calling in.
The police had been using wireless communications since 1922 and, prior to that, telegrams. In 1845 police arrested a criminal after using the telegram system and later, in 1910, Dr Crippen was caught after telegrams were exchanged between London, Canada and a ship in the Atlantic. Morse code was another method employed by police to transmit and receive urgent calls.
In 1936 the Met Police were taking around 8,000 calls a month. Throughout that year 57,000 emergency calls were for the police, out of a total of 92,000.
Not everyone could remember or knew the telephone number of the local Police Station. In November of 1927 the general public in London were advised ‘if you have an emergency dial 0’. When the operator answers, ask for the service you require. At this time local police stations only had a single telephone line which would frequently be engaged when an emergency call was being made.
Emergency -which service please?
It was recognised that there had to be a way of prioritising emergency calls. The G.P.O. (General Post Office) tested various ways to implement an emergency signalling system either by dialing certain numbers or a special button on each telephone. The call would go to a telephone exchange where an alarm would sound and a warning light would flash, alerting the operator to the emergency call. They were instructed to answer: ‘Emergency – which service, please?’ The caller was expected then to ask for Fire, Police, or Ambulance. The operator would then put the call through to the appropriate emergency service. Callers needed to be assured that they would be connected to an operator promptly and the operator needed a way to prioritise calls in order to ensure that the emergency services could immediately spring into action.
The GPO proposed a three digit number. The choice of 999 was perfect for accessibility reasons, compared with e.g. lower numbers: in the dark or in dense smoke, 999 could be dialled by placing a finger one hole away from the dial stop and rotating the dial to the full extent three times. This enables all users including the visually impaired to easily dial the emergency number. 999 was also used because the numbers could be remembered easily and they were all at the same end of the dial. It was also relatively simple to convert coin boxes to accept 999 calls without charge which was extremely important because few households at the time had a telephone, so residents were reliant on telephone boxes.
The system was introduced, not surprisingly, after a disaster and public outcry. On 10 November 1935 a fire in a house on Wimpole Street killed five women. A neighbour had tried to telephone the fire brigade and was so outraged at being held in a queue by the Welbeck telephone exchange that he wrote a letter to the editor of Times which prompted the government to set up a Parliamentary Committee called the Belgrave Committee to examine the problems and set up various experiments in London.
Telephone Users S.O.S
Described in the press as the ‘telephone users S.O.S’, the system came into operation on July 1st 1937, covering a 12 mile radius from London’s Oxford Circus. Several people have claimed to have made the first 999 call on the 2nd or 3rd July.
One of the earliest emergency calls resulted in the arrest of a Thomas Duffy, a burglar who was breaking into a house in Hampstead at 4.20 in the morning. The householder disturbed him and Mrs Stanley Beard called the police at Scotland Yard by dialling 999. Her husband told the magistrates’ court that he was very impressed by the new system as the police arrested the burglar within 5 minutes of the call being made.
My wife made use of the new signal which we were instructed to use yesterday on the telephone, and as a result of using that signal almost instantaneous connection was made with the police station, and in less than five minutes this man was arrested,” he said. ‘It struck me, as a householder and fairly large taxpayer, that we are getting something for our money, and I was very much impressed by it.
Keith Moore BBC News
Switchboard Operators Faint
But in the early days it’s reported that 999 calls to Scotland Yard triggered such a loud buzzer alarm that the switchboard girls had to be carried out after fainting at their desks at the deafening racket.
A 1951 article in the Post Office Telecommunications Journal described fairly chaotic scenes in its call centres during 999’s early days.
When the raucous buzzer sounded in the quiet disciplined switchrooms a few of the girls found the situation too much for them and had to be carried out. It was even suggested in the press that the buzzers were disturbing other people living in the vicinity of the exchanges!
The problem was only solved when ingenious engineers stuffed tennis balls into the mouth of the klaxons to muffle the noise.
Not all the calls made to 999 in its first week were as serious as Mrs Beard’s. In the first week of the system operating, The Times newspaper reported that 1,336 calls had been made on the special number. 1073 were genuine, 171 misused the system, and there were 92 ‘curiosity calls’.
The service was introduced in Glasgow a year later, in 1938. But it wasn’t until after World War II that it spread to other parts of the UK, including Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.
Police Cars fitted with Radio Transmitters
It wasn’t until 1945 that police cars were fitted with radio transmitters allowing 999 operators to speak to responders and it only became available to the entire country when all the telephone exchanges were automated in 1976.
The 999 service was first made available to mobile phones users in 1986. Dr Chris Williams of the Open University says the introduction of police radios had been the key to the service working, because it allowed real-time communication that then enabled quick responses to emergency calls.
Met Police historian Mr Paterson says the sheer volume of 999 calls represents the biggest change since he started out as a police officer in the 1970s.
When I joined the police, most people didn’t have phones – they were relying on phone boxes,’ he says. ‘Now most people have mobile phones, so one incident today would generate dozens of calls, whereas before it was just one or two calls.
Of course all of those calls have to be answered quickly. And the pace of life has got much faster – people expect an instant response.’
A day in the life of a Police Controller
Today I am working the night shift in the Control room in Brighton Police Station. A typical night shift is from 2200 hrs until 0600 hrs, however this may change in the future.
As it stands the current shift pattern is 2 early shifts of 0600-1600 hrs, 2 late shifts of 1600-0200 hrs and then 4 days off. I say four days off, but I usually spend 2 of these day on duty in my role of Special Constable.
For tonight’s shift I am currently taking 999 calls for the whole county, however I have also just taken a misrouted 999 call that has involved me calling West Midlands Police to pass them the job. These calls could be anything from missing people, fights, firearms incidents or a whole multitude of things. Either way it keeps the job interesting, as you never know what is going to happen, after working for the police for so many years, I don’t think I could go back to working 9-5.