• Before automatic exchanges, New Zealand's public telephone system was based on large numbers of local, manual telephone exchanges staffed by mostly female operators.

  • New Zealand's 111 emergency number was modelled on the "world-famous" British 999 service.


Cheng (Kenneth) Yew and Ambulance OfficerChas Sturton, head of the Police Telecommunications Section.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ


Before automatic exchanges, New Zealand's public telephone system was based on large numbers of local, manual telephone exchanges staffed by mostly female operators.

People could summon police, the fire brigade or medical assistance without knowing the telephone number just by asking the operator. They were always prepared to help and in many exchanges, operators could alert the fire brigade by pressing a switch that activated the fire siren.

In New Zealand in the 1950s, the Post and Telegraph Department was working hard to convert manual telephone exchanges to automatic.

As areas were switched over, it meant an increasing number of people calling for emergency help locally had to either know the number for their fire brigade, police station or ambulance service or look it up in the telephone directory.

The numbers for the emergency services were different at every exchange. The Auckland directory for example had 500 pages and 40 exchanges.

As the District Engineer overseeing Masterton noted at the time: "One can imagine that a person in a panic might have some difficulty in finding the right number in that lot."

As in England before 999 was introduced in 1937, New Zealand had no way of identifying emergency calls arriving in either manual or automatic exchanges. In busy exchanges where calls were answered in arrival order, the potential to lose vital seconds was high.

Arthur VarleyArthur Varley

One of those familiar with the 999 system was Chief Fire Officer Arthur Varley. He was recruited from the UK to address shortcomings in emergency response identified in the official report on the 1947 Ballantyne's fire and applied pressure to have a universal emergency number adopted in New Zealand.

In mid-1957, a committee was set up representing Post and Telegraph, Police, the Health Department (on behalf of ambulance services) and most probably the Fire Service.

On the committee was Chas Sturton of Post and Telegraph, who soon transferred to Police as a Regulation 24 Inspector to head up a new communications section.

Frank AplinFrank Aplin

He was joined by Wing Commander R J Gibbs, at this point in charge of Police communications. Other Police members were civilian Deputy Commissioner A N V Dobbs and Superintendent Frank Aplin, head of the CIB. Arthur Varley was also likely to have been a member.

The committee began preparing for a common emergency number modelled on the "world-famous" British 999 service.

In a speech to the 1957 Police Association Conference, Wing Commander Gibbs explained the plans: "At no two police stations in New Zealand have you the same number for emergency services.

"With this in mind the Post and Telegraph Department, egged along by this Department and the Fire and Ambulance Services, have been working towards a common number... The number will probably be 111."

The Wing Commander also sounded a warning about the impact of the number on police workload.

"...What does the number do? ... it permits everybody who sees anything to go to an ordinary call-box whether or not he has money in his pockets.

"That is going to increase the work of the police station considerably. There is no doubt that reports will come in a larger number than they do now, and much more quickly."

The NZ Police Annual Report of 1958 notes good progress with introducing a common emergency number.

"The Postmaster-General has approved the provision of this service using the number 111.

"A report has been produced by Post Office engineers on the operation of the service, and this has been followed up with discussions between representatives of the Post Office, Police, Fire Service and the Health Department representing the Ambulance Services.

"The scheme will be introduced in the Masterton exchange area ... and will be gradually extended.

"It can, however, be introduced only in places having wholly British 'step-by-step' type automatic switching equipment and it will therefore be some years before it can be brought in at such places as Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Blenheim and Oamaru where some older type switching equipment will remain in service for a further period..."

In 1956 a modern automatic exchange was installed in Masterton, providing the technology for 111.

The stage was set for the phased introduction of New Zealand's new single emergency number.


Main source used in compiling this information was "The '111' emergency telephone service in operation." Address by District Engineer D M Burns to a NZ Conference of Chief Fire Officers, Napier, February 1959.