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 calls can 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 is Advanced 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.