In the foreground the operator is taking calls including any 111 emergencies.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Hodges
THE START OF 111
In July 1958, the Post and Telegraph District Engineer Mr D M (Doug) Burns, is reported to have said: "... the emergency service system such as was in use in the English telephone system would be introduced to New Zealand.
"Masterton was to be the first of the New Zealand towns to have the system."
Unlike the English 999 number, New Zealanders would dial 111.
New Zealand telephone dials were in reverse order to English phones and the number of pulses sent by dialling 111 resulted in the same number of pulses as 999.
Automatic exchanges had been installed in Masterton and Carterton in the previous couple of years. Local calls were fully automatic however Masterton also had a toll exchange staffed on a 24-hour basis to handle long distance calls. These operators would now receive 111 calls and put them through to the appropriate emergency service.
Installing the system in the Masterton and Carterton exchanges was a big job.
Six lines were made available for subscribers to make emergency calls – three lines for Masterton and three for Carterton.
When a subscriber dialled 111, a red light glowed on the panel of the toll switchboard. At the same time a large red light mounted on top of the switchboard glowed and a hooter went off in the exchange. Another hooter sounded in the building's passage, clearly alerting staff to the emergency call.
The call could be answered by any one of five operators when the board was fully staffed. The one who plugged in first took the call. A supervisor also plugged in too, so she could help if the situation became difficult.
Direct lines connected the toll switchboard to the Masterton police station, fire brigade and hospital, creating what were called 'Acceptance Points'. Each service was given a red telephone and they were expected to accept all emergency calls at any hour of the day or night.
In a speech to a Chief Fire Officers' conference, Mr Burns described how the system worked: "At the fire station, this direct line comes out on a red telephone which is connected up so that when it rings, all the alarm bells in the station also ring, and the call is identified as a fire call.
"There is a similar arrangement at the police station, and at the hospital the calls come up on the main telephone switchboard and are identified by a red light and a distinctive bell."
The exchange was also provided with a hold feature so operators could have the caller traced. This helped with serious medical cases and also tracking down people "making foolish calls ... and abusing the system".
Installing 111 in Masterton and Carterton cost the Post and Telegraph Department about 300 pounds. Fire, Ambulance and Police carried the installation costs of the direct lines, which added up to 3 or 4 pounds for each service, plus rental costs of 10 pounds a year. The red telephones were supplied free of charge.
By late September 1958, installation was complete, tested and ready for use. On 29 September, the pilot of New Zealand's new emergency telephone service began.
The Wairarapa Times-Age reported on 30 September 1958 that although there was a spate of misdials and faults, three 'genuine' calls had been made on the new 111 line.
"It was due to the 111 service that an ambulance was rushed to a sawmill in seven minutes to pick up an accident case yesterday.
"It was also due to the 111 service that a doctor was obtained. The police made one of the other calls and the third was for a rubbish tip fire in Carterton."
The temptation to misuse the 111 system was evident right at the beginning.
The Wairarapa Times-Age disapprovingly noted that a caller who phoned 111 asking for the address of a Carterton Hotel could have held up a call where the need was genuine and urgent.
This was regarded as being "a very poor show".
After five months of operation, the number of calls had fallen from an average of about five a day to three a day. Of those, two were genuine emergencies and the other was not.
No record has been found to date of who made New Zealand's first 111 call.
Main sources used in compiling this material were NZPO Technicians, Masterton 72 years of installation of automatic telephone machine switching systems, 1919-1991. Permain, W M. Masterton Library; and The '111' emergency telephone service in operation. Address by D M Burns to a NZ Conference of Chief Fire Officers, Napier, February 1959.