Sunday 17 December 2017

Some excellent facts and figures to celebrate the 80th birthday of 999

The UK’s London-based emergency service was the first in the world.


By Edd Dracott

Eighty years ago, on June 30 1937, the world’s first emergency service – 999 – was born.

Here’s everything you need to know about its present, its history and some of the many well-wishers who have supported it.

How does it work now?

The emergency service takes around 560,000 calls a week – around 30 million calls a year, according to BT’s archives.

BT said more than 97% of calls are now answered within five seconds, with 62% of calls made by members of the public currently coming from mobile phones.

However, around 35% of calls do not involve actual requests for help, with the majority of these 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.

Peak times are around midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, when around 5,000 calls an hour are made to the service.

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.

In case you’re struggling to get your head around just how much work goes into 999 calls, the Northwestern Ambulance Service NHS Trust is marking the emergency service’s birthday by tweeting 999 emergency calls in a row – a number they are getting to pretty rapidly.

If you’d like to follow the service’s progress, visit their Twitter page.

How did it come about?

The service was launched following a fire at a London doctor’s surgery in November 1935 that resulted in five fatalities, and led to a committee set up by the government to look at how telephone operators could identify emergency calls.

The committee proposed that there should be a standard easy-to-remember nationwide number to alert the emergency services, first considering 707, which corresponded to the letters SOS on the telephone dial, and 333, but settling on 999 as the most practical number.

How did it work then?


Originally just in London, the new 999 service handled more than 1,000 calls in its first week – less than 0.2% of the number taken in the same period today.

Initially, each 999 call triggered flashing red lights and hooters to alert exchange operators to give priority to the emergency call, but the hooters were so loud that the operators pushed a tennis ball into the horn to reduce the volume.

How did it spread?


Glasgow was the second city to introduce the service in 1938, but the Second World War delayed the roll-out across the UK until it reached all major towns and cities by 1948.

According to the Home Office, the entire UK was covered by the 999 emergency service in 1976, while the first computerised call was recorded in 1984 – a report of a stray dog barking.

To all the emergency services taking calls today – happy birthday and thanks for all you do!

Press Association

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