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BT Press Releases

DC07 - 346                                                                                                            June 29, 2007

999 celebrates its 70th birthday                

World’s Oldest Emergency Call Service Handles 5 Million London Calls Each Year

BT's 999 emergency service - which handles more than 13,000 calls a day from across London - celebrates its 70th birthday on Saturday (June 30).

 The world’s oldest emergency call service was launched in 1937 after a fire at a London surgery led to the deaths of five women.  It is known for its reliability and professionalism - with more than 95 per cent of the 30 million calls received in the UK each year answered within five seconds.

 Clive Ansell, BT’s director for London, said: “The 999 service has flourished since its ambitious and innovative beginnings to become one of the most respected and admired in the world. Our highly-skilled operators use the latest technology to ensure that emergency calls are dealt with as efficiently and effectively as possible.

“There is no doubt that over the years the professionalism of the service has played a vital role in saving countless lives.

“Being the first country to set up the service we feel it’s important to celebrate our seven decades of success and to recognise the professionalism and hard work put in by our operators to make the 999 service what it is today.”

 The 999 story is one of major, continuing investment - £10 million on a new computer database in the past five years alone – and rigorous training. Operators initially undergo a comprehensive nine - week training programme and then receive ‘refresher training’ every month.

 Nearly half of the 80,000 calls received daily by BT operators in the UK do  not involve requests for help.

Most are made by children playing or customers accidentally dialling 999 or the European emergency number 112 from a mobile handset in a pocket or handbag.  After careful questioning the BT operator may take the decision to safely end the call allowing the emergency services to focus on genuine calls.   
Of those calls passed by BT operators to the emergency services, 56 per cent go to the police, 35 per cent to the ambulance service, eight per cent to the fire service and one per cent to the coastguard and cave and mountain rescue services.

Each of the 5 million calls generated each year in London is handled by one of BT’s five 999 centres in Nottingham, Newport, Blackburn, Bangor or Glasgow.

Speed and accuracy of information are vital in the handling of a 999 call. As the call is received details of the caller’s address and phone number flash immediately on the screen of the BT operator, who will swiftly confirm that the call is bona fide, which emergency service is required and then transfer the call to the appropriate service.

BT’s advanced system also allows mobile phone users to be located quickly, in most cases locating them to within a two kilometre radius. 

It is all a far cry from the start of the service when the arrival of a 999 call was announced by a red light and loud Klaxon horn. There were fears that the noise would “cause nervous strain on both day and night telephonists” so staff at the exchanges used tennis balls to muffle the noise until a long-term solution could be found.  

BT chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, said: “I am extremely proud of the BT operators in the emergency service sector. They are a highly competent team working at the sharp end of one the most important communications services in the country. They have the satisfaction of knowing that countless lives have been saved over the last 70 years because of their professionalism and commitment.”

Notes to Editors
• Interviews, images and old footage are available on request.

Below are a series of facts including history, dates for regional areas implementing 999, facts and call volumes over the years.

Facts on 999

• 999 was introduced on June 30, 1937 after five women died in a fire in Wimpole Street, London.
• The first caller was the wife of Mr Stanley Beard, in Hampstead. It was days after the service launched and led to burglar Thomas Duffy, 24, being caught red handed raiding the house.
• Emergency callers can be connected to six services – police, ambulance, fire, coastguard, cave or mountain rescue.
• In 1937 operators had to cope with red lamps turning on and a loud klaxon siren going off every time an emergency call came in. There were fears that the noise would “cause nervous strain on both day and night telephonists”
• A 999 call is answered immediately and has priority over other operator calls.
• Over half of callers ask to be put through to the police
• All calls are automatically recorded
• Operators handle around 250 calls a day and spend around 9 weeks in initial training and coaching.
• There are around 80,000 calls each day, with higher volumes over the weekend days.
• Experts chose 999 rather than 111 for technical reasons. In pre-optical fibre days telegraph wires rubbed together in the wind and transmitted the equivalent of a 111 call.
• The first mobile call to 999 was in 1986.
• 112 was introduced to the UK in 1993. The European number works alongside 999 in line with a European Directive. 
• Typically the highest call volume is between 10.30pm at midnight, around 6,000 calls per hour. On New Years Day it can reach up to 12,000 calls per hour!
• Mobile phone calls make up 50 per cent of all 999s answered by BT
• Other emergency service numbers around the world
000 Australia
111 New Zealand
123 Columbia
100 Greece and Israel
101 Argentina
911 USA and Canada
112 Throughout European Community and alongside national codes

History of the 999 Emergency Service
1882 The Exchange Telegraph Company introduce 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.

1930s             Police call points are introduced along similar lines to fire alarm call points but using telephone rather than telegraph technology

1935  In November a serious fire at the London surgery of aural surgeon Dr Philip Franklin at 27 Wimpole Street W1 (LANgham 1440) caused the death of five women.  The inquest heard that the Fire Brigade arrived at the scene before the operator had answered a neighbour’s call to alert them to the fire, and the Belgrave Committee was set up to study the problem of operators’ identifying emergency telephone calls
The Committee believed that there should be one number throughout the country to alert the emergency services and that the number must be easy to remember. The number had to be three digits long to work in London. It was important that emergency calls could be made from coin box telephones without inserting any money (at the time money had to be inserted before making a call). It was relatively simple and inexpensive to modify call boxes to allow the 9 to be dialled without inserting coins, and the choice of 999 was made.

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

1938 The 999 service was introduced in Glasgow.

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

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

1976 All telephone exchanges in Britain are automated, allowing the 999 service to be truly nationwide.

1986 The 999 service introduced for mobile phone users (replacing interim arrangements of 995, 996 and 997).

1993 In January 1993 the additional emergency code 112 was introduced alongside 999.

1998 On 6 October 1998 BT launched 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 had been made, call handling and vehicle dispatch times could improve by 30 seconds.

2003 BT moves to routing all calls from fixed line by their postcode, which allowed an even closer match with emergency service catchment areas and allowed movement away from all numbers with the same area code being routed in the same way.
2004 In January 2004, BT extended the 999 location information service to allow approximate locations for mobile phones to be provided to the emergency services based on radio coverage of the aerial picking-up the call. The new service is in line with the latest EC Directives on making location information available (Directive 2002/22/EC) and on privacy and data protection (Directive 2002/58/EC). 

Rollout of 999 across the UK
Following the cessation of activities (during the Second World War) planning resumed and in November 1947 the 999 service was available at about 600 exchanges - whilst this was only about one-sixth of the total number of automatic exchanges, it represented the great majority of customers.

On 28 November 1947, a meeting about the extension of the service chaired by Mr F I Ray, telecommunications department, north eastern region concluded that the 999 service should be provided where technically practicable and not prohibitively expensive.  It was also minuted that ‘Mr Ray doubted that they had anticipated the extent to which the 999 service would be publicised by the National Press’.


Introduction dates for regions outside London 
Scotland – 1938 Glasgow

Home Counties - February 1946:

Brighton (13/02/1946); Fakenham (13/02/1946); Reading (13/02/1946);
Chelmsford (13/02/1946); Gt Yarmouth (13/02/1946); Ryde (13/02/1946);
Chichester (13/02/1946); Guildford (13/02/1946); Sevenoaks (13/02/1946)
Cromer (13/02/1946); Hertford (13/02/1946); Southend (13/02/1946);
Dorking (13/02/1946); Kings Lynn (13/02/1946); Slough (13/02/1946);
Epping (13/02/1946); Portsmouth (13/02/1946);  


Midlands - February 1946:

Birmingham Director Area (25/02/1946) Coventry (19/02/46)

North Eastern Region - January 1946:

Bridlington (21/01/1946); Middlesboro York (21/01/1946)


North Western Region - January 1946:

Liverpool director area  - 9 exchanges (30/05/1945) Burnley (5-6/12/1945)
Rochdale (06/12/1945) Macclesfield (09/03/1946); Manchester (09/03/1946)


South Western Region - January 1946:

Cheltenham (-Prestbury) (31/01/1946); Kingsbridge (01/01/1946); Torquay (-Chelston, Churston, Paignton, Preston, St Marychurch, Shiphay Collaton) (28/01/1946);
Dursley (31/01/1946); Plymouth (01/01/1946);
Exeter (-Pinhoe, Topsham) (07/01/1946); Swindon (31/01/1946);
Gloucester (-Barnwood) (31/01/1946);   Truro (01/01/1946)  


Welsh and Border Counties - October 1946:

Newport, Monmouthshire (25/10/1946)  

Northern Ireland - September 1946:

Ballymena (23/09/1946); Enniskillen (23/09/1946);  
Belfast (23/09/1946); Londonderry (23/09/1946)