Dial 999: 75 years of emergency phone calls
Published: 30th Jun 2012 00:13:39
When the 999 service was launched in London 75 years ago it was the world's first emergency phone number. What happened when it rang for the first time?
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."
Sources: BT, Cable & Wireless
A week later, on 7 July 1937, the press reported the first arrest after a 999 call.
John Stanley Beard was woken in the early hours of the morning by a noise underneath his bedroom window in the affluent neighbourhood of Hampstead, north London.
The architect told Marylebone Police Court that he looked out and saw a man's foot.
He shouted at the man who, on hearing Mr Beard's voice, ran off down the garden path, jumped over some railings and headed towards Primrose Hill.
Meanwhile, Mr Beard's wife - referred to in reports only as Mrs Beard - dialled 999.
In less than five minutes, 24-year-old labourer Thomas Duffy had been arrested. He was later charged with an attempted break-in with intent to steal.
In a public relations coup for the new service, the Times reported that Mr Beard told the court that he was pleased to see that his tax money was being put to good use.
"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."
Not all the calls made to 999 in its first week were as serious as Mrs Beard's. In fact, of the 1,336 calls made, 91 were prank calls.
Quicker access to the fire brigade was the reason the idea of an emergency number had been debated initially.
The public's willingness to call on the police couldn't be more different from their attitude when the force was formed.
When the raucous buzzer sounded in the quiet disciplined switchrooms a few of the girls found the situation too much and had to be carried out”
"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.
"As soon as 999 was introduced, the success of it showed immediately and it spread out to the whole country and it resulted in arrests and people getting assistance quickly."
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.
It became available to the entire country only when all the telephone exchanges were automated in 1976.
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.
Despite a positive start, there were still some teething problems.
Like today, operators would answer the calls and then transfer them to the appropriate emergency service. Now it is BT and Cable & Wireless who answer the calls.
Back in 1937 when the Post Office ran the telephone network, operators were alerted to an incoming 999 call by a flashing red light and a klaxon.
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!"
Thankfully for the call handlers, technology has led to efficiencies in dealing with a huge growth in calls over the years.
Mobile phone technology in particular led to a dramatic spike in the number of calls made.
When the 999 service was first made available to mobile phones users in 1986, fewer than 19 million emergency calls came into BT annually.
Last year, BT handled 31 million calls, while a further six million were handled by Cable & Wireless. Half of those, though, weren't put through to the emergency services because 999 had been unintentionally dialled from people's mobile phones or they were prank calls.
Of the calls that were put through, more than half asked for police assistance. The next most requested was the ambulance service, followed by the fire brigade and, finally, the coast guard. It's a pattern that has been consistent since the number was introduced.
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."
At 21:54:49 in EnglandA High Court hearing to decide whether this year's badger cull should go ahead without independent monitoring will give its judgement at a later date.
At 21:47:55 in SportFormer England all-rounder Andrew Flintoff has been included in the Lancashire squad for the T20 Blast Finals Day at Edgbaston on Saturday.
At 21:40:15 in EnglandProposals to relocate a grammar school in east Kent have been rejected because it would be too expensive.
At 21:35:06 in SportGroup B winners Nottinghamshire will host local rivals Derbyshire in the quarter-finals of the One-Day Cup.
At 21:29:10 in EnglandA teacher has been banned indefinitely after he swore at pupils, punched them and called them offensive names.
At 21:19:37 in HeadlinesThe exchange of five senior Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo Bay for a US soldier held captive by the Taliban violated the law, an independent US government watchdog agency has said.
At 21:18:02 in Northern IrelandA man has been taken to hospital with gunshot wounds to his legs after being shot in Strabane, County Tyrone.
At 21:08:02 in Northern IrelandTwo men have been charged with a number of motoring offences following a vehicle hijacking in the Little Diamond area of Londonderry.
At 21:05:05 in SportJamie Donaldson underlined his Ryder Cup credentials as he surged to the top of the leaderboard on the first day of the Czech Masters.
At 20:58:21 in EnglandA 17-year-old youth has been charged with causing a child to be involved in prostitution or pornography and six other sex offences in Buckinghamshire.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. Dial 999: 75 years of emergency phone calls [Online] (Updated 30th Jun 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1437837/Dial-999-75-years-of-emergency-phone-calls [Accessed 21st Aug 2014]
News In Other Categories
The Scottish singer Jean Redpath has died. She was 77 and in an Arizona hospice.
A system that allows the exterior of aircraft to "feel" damage or injury in a way similar to human skin is in development by BAE Systems.
Bank of Scotland has said it will appeal a Belfast High Court judgement that ruled it had unfairly double billed customers who fell behind on their mortgages.
BBC journalists "acted appropriately" in coverage of the police search of Sir Cliff Richard's home, director general Tony Hall has said.
Former England all-rounder Andrew Flintoff has been included in the Lancashire squad for the T20 Blast Finals Day at Edgbaston on Saturday.
With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com