The 999 Service is 80 Years Old Today - with about two million calls a year handled across the South West

The world’s oldest emergency call service - 999 - which handles more than 5,000 calls a day in the South West, is 80 years old today.

BT is today celebrating the 80th anniversary of the UK’s 999 emergency service - which handles about two million calls a year across the South West.

The world’s oldest emergency service was launched in London on 30 June 1937. A fire at a London doctor’s surgery in November 1935, which led to the tragic death of five women, resulted in a committee being set up by the government to look at the problem of how telephone operators could identify emergency calls.

The committee proposed there should be a standard easy-to-remember nationwide number to alert the emergency services. They considered using 707, which corresponded to the letters SOS on the telephone dial and 333, but the technology of the time would not allow these to be used and 999 was chosen as the most practical number.

Glasgow became the second city to benefit from the service in 1938. The Second World War delayed the rollout of the service across the UK, but it was eventually extended to all major towns and cities by 1948.

More than a thousand calls were made during the first week of the service in London in 1937, with each 999 call triggering flashing red lights and hooters to alert operators in the exchange to give priority to the emergency call. The hooters were apparently so loud that the operators pushed a tennis ball into the horn to reduce the volume until modifications were made.

Hoax or unnecessary calls were a feature of the 999 service from the very beginning, including a complaint about bagpipes being played outside a house and a dispute between a neighbour and the local coalman.

BT advisors now answer around 560,000 calls a week in the UK – including about 37,000 in the South West. Of around 30 million calls received a year from fixed and mobile phones, more than 97 per cent are answered within five seconds.

Some of the highest numbers of calls made to 999 are around midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, with around 5,000 calls an hour being received by BT. The early hours of New Year’s Day are traditionally the busiest time of the year when up to 9,000 callscan be received each hour.

Jon Reynolds, chairman of BT’s South West regional board, said: “Recent events in the UK mean people are acutely aware of the work of the emergency services and the value of the 999 service. I am extremely proud of the BT operators and their role in 999. They are a highly competent team working at the sharp end of the most important communication services in the country. In the South West, countless lives have been saved over the last 80 years because of their professionalism and dedication.”

The latest development in the 999 service isAdvanced Mobile Location (AML), a new mobile location system pioneered by BT, to pinpoint 999 calls from mobiles more precisely. When an emergency call is made with an AML-enabled smartphone, the phone automatically activates its location service and sends its position in a text message to the 999 service. AML is up to 4,000 times more accurate than existing location systems. It is now integrated into the Android operating system in the UK and is being adopted across Europe and the rest of the world.

Around 35 per cent of the 30 million UK calls answered by BT each year do not involve actual requests for help. The majority of these are made by children playing with home phones or people accidentally dialling 999 or the European emergency number 112, often from a mobile handset in a pocket or handbag.

The proportion of calls connected by BT to the various emergency services is: Police - 49 per cent, Ambulance - 47 per cent, Fire and Rescue Service - four per cent and less than one per cent to the Coastguard and Cave and Mountain rescue services.


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Notes to Editors

999 quick facts

  • 999 was introduced on June 30, 1937 after five women died in a fire in Wimpole Street, London.
  • The first caller that led to an arrest was the wife of Mr Stanley Beard, in Hampstead. Just days after the service launched it led to the arrest of burglar Thomas Duffy.
  • Emergency callers can be connected to four services – police, ambulance, fire, coastguard with calls to cave or mountain rescue directed through the Police.
  • In 1937 operators had to cope with red lamps turning on and a loud hooters. There were fears that the noise would cause nervous strain on telephonists.
  • A 999 call is answered immediately and has priority over other operator calls.
  • All calls are automatically recorded
  • Operators handle around 250 calls a day and spend around fourteen weeks in initial training and consolidation.
  • There are around 80,000 calls each day, with higher volumes over the weekend days.
  • Experts chose 999 rather than 111 for technical reasons. Wires moving together in the wind can be transmitted as 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.
  • Some of the highest call volumes are around midnight on Friday and Saturdays when around 5,000 calls an hour are received. In the early hours of New Year’s Day it can reach up to 9,000 calls an hour.
  • Mobile phone calls make up 62 per cent of all 999 calls 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

Some history of the 999 Emergency Service

Before the introduction of 999:

  • People with a telephone in their home who were private subscribers on an automated exchange would call 0 for the operator to contact the emergency services just as they would to make a regular call. People without a dial on a manual exchange would tap the telephone cradle to attract the operator’s attention.
  • From a public kiosk the special “emergency call” button would be pressed so no money would need to be entered to secure the connection.

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

1988 BT introduced OTSS (BT Operator Service System) a digital screen-based call handling system to enable operators to know immediately when there was an emergency call on the line, with the call being automatically allocated to the first available operator. If the call was from a digital exchange the system automatically displayed the calling number and the emergency authorities' numbers. The operator then selected the number of the required service and used BTOSS to connect the call.

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 an average of 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 complied with the latest EC Directives on making location information available (Directive 2002/22/EC) and on privacy and data protection (Directive 2002/58/EC).

2014 Working with the mobile networks and handset manufacturers, BT is a key partner in making the UK the first country in Europe to use the GPS feature found on mobile smartphones to provide greatly increased accuracy of location to the emergency services as part of the 999 call. This became available on the majority of Android phones in July 2016.

  • In the early 50s, when there were around 4 million customer lines, there were fewer than half a million 999 calls.
  • By the early 60s, there were around 7 million customer lines; approximately 2.5m 999 calls made a year, rising to 4m a year by 1969.
  • 1978 - Approximately 16 million lines - 9 million 999 calls made – 65 per cent to police, 25 per cent to ambulance, 10 per cent to fire
  • 1988 - Approximately 23 million BT lines - 19 million 999 calls handled by BT, now including calls from mobile handsets and use of push button phones (rather than dials) increasing numbers of false calls due to children “playing” with handsets
  • 1991 - Approximately 25 million BT lines – 22 million 999 calls handled by BT
  • 1994 - Approximately 26 million BT lines – 22 million 999 calls handled by BT
  • 1996 - Approximately 27 million BT lines - 20.6 million 999 calls handled by BT
  • 1998 – Approximately 27 million BT lines - 19.7 million 999 calls handled by BT
  • 2000 - Approximately 28 million BT lines - 24.9 million 999 calls handled by BT
  • 2001 - 31.3 million 999 calls handled by BT. A massive increase, with approximately half made from mobile phones, many being accidentally dialled.
  • 2006 - 30 million calls handled by BT, 50 per cent from mobile handsets, with 60 per cent connected to the emergency services (56 per cent to the Police, 35 per cent to the Ambulance Service, eight per cent to the Fire and Rescue Service and one per cent to the Coastguard).
  • 2017 – 30 million calls handled by BT, 62 per cent from mobile handsets and 65 per cent of calls onward connected to the emergency services (49 per cent to the Police, 47 per cent to the Ambulance Service, four per cent to the Fire and Rescue Service and less than one per cent to the Coastguard.)

Rollout of 999 across the UK

Introduction dates for regions outside London[1]

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);Middlesbrough York (21/01/1946)
North Western Region – May 1945
Liverpool director area- 9 exchanges (30/05/1945)Burnley (5-6/12/1945)
Rochdale (06/12/1045)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 Collation) (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 Region – October 1946:
Newport, Monmouthshire (25/10/1946)
Northern Ireland –September 1946:
Ballymena (23/09/1946);Enniskillen (23/09/1946);
Belfast (23/09/1946);Derry (23/09/1946)
  • Typical numbers of 999 calls each week in 1949 were: London, 3000; Liverpool, 90; Portsmouth, 75; Edinburgh, 70; Cambridge, 25
  • Typical numbers of 999 calls each week in 1951 were:

London, 4300; Manchester, 150; Birmingham, 640; Leeds, 370; Glasgow, 300; Liverpool, 250; Edinburgh, 150; Brighton, 100; Portsmouth, 90

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[1]Post Office Telecommunications Journal, May 1949 (Glasgow);all others from ‘Summary – Emergency Call Service ‘999’ Introduction (Works Spec T E 6240 (sect 13)’ manuscript table and later correspondence from regions – File 0801-B