999 celebrates its 75th birthday

World’s oldest emergency service handles 31 million calls a year

BT’s 999 service, the world’s first emergency call service, celebrated its 75th anniversary on Saturday.

The 999 service was launched in London on June 30, 1937, following the deaths of five women in a fire at the home of a London surgeon in November 1935. This tragedy led to a committee being set up to look at how telephone operators could easily identify emergency calls. After a consultation the new easy to remember standard number 999 was agreed on, becoming the world’s first emergency number. Glasgow became the second city to have the service in 1938 with it being extended to all major towns and cities by 1948.

The service has expanded rapidly since it began and when red lights and klaxons would tell the operators an emergency call was being received. The first week of the service in 1937 saw more than a thousand calls made to the new number. This has increased to an average of 597,000 calls a week across the UK. BT operators answer more than 98 per cent of the 31 million calls made annually from fixed and mobile phones within five seconds. The early hours of New Year’s Day is traditionally the busiest time when up to 13,500 calls can be received each hour.

Warren Buckley, managing director, Customer Service, said: “When lives are at stake, it’s vital that no time is lost. Many people owe their lives to smooth and effective call handling by BT operators, using the latest technologies to ensure that emergency calls are dealt with swiftly and efficiently.

“The 999 service is known for its reliability and professionalism. It’s not only the world’s oldest emergency call service having clocked up 75 years of experience in providing the UK with a communications lifeline in times of need, it’s also one of the world’s most respected and admired services.

“Our 999 operators are the first port of call for people seeking help and we’re very proud of the part they have played in this essential service for the past seven and a half decades.”

BT is continuing to invest in the service – £10 million is currently being spent on renewing call-handling equipment. New operators undergo a nine-week training programme and all operators are given “refresher training” every month.

Around half of the 85,000 calls received daily by BT operators in the UK do not involve requests for help. Most are made by children playing or customers accidentally dialling 999 or the European emergency number 112 from a mobile phone in a pocket or handbag. All have to be carefully managed by BT and the emergency services to ensure genuine calls are dealt with effectively.

999 calls are handled by one of BT’s well-established centres in Nottingham, Newport, Blackburn, Bangor and Glasgow, or one of the newer centres in Dundee and Portadown, which only recently began taking calls. Each operator handles around 250 emergency calls each day from all over the UK. A centre in Liverpool provides a text relay service for people who are deaf or speech-impaired.

Speed and accuracy of information are vital in the handling of an emergency call. As the call is received details of the caller’s phone number and associated information flash immediately on the screen of the BT operator, who will swiftly confirm that the call is bona fide, which emergency service is required and then transfer the call to the appropriate service.

When BT operators pass calls to the emergency services, 52 per cent go to the police, 41 per cent to the ambulance service, six per cent to the fire and rescue service and one per cent to the coastguard and cave and mountain rescue services.

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