The History of the 999 Call

By Hannah Cheshire

From 1927 the recommended way of contacting the emergency services was to dial 0 for the switchboard and ask for the relevant emergency service operator. However, there was no way of the operator knowing which incoming calls to prioritize and the switchboard was often jammed with calls making it difficult to alert anyone. In mid 1937 the system we still use today came into place and is the worlds first emergency services number. The decision to launch such a service was made after five women died in a London Fire (Wimpole Street) in 1935 in which callers trying to contact the fire brigade found themselves kept in queues by the telephone exchange. This prompted the government to consider how emergency calls could be identified by telephone operators.

The system was created by the General Post Office who at that time ran the telephone network. They proposed a three digit number that when dialled would trigger a loud buzzer and flashing light to go off at the telephone exchange centre alerting operators to incoming emergency calls and enabling them to divert their attention. In an issue of the Post Office Telecommunications Journal (1951) it was reported that the buzzer was that loud that not only was the situation too much for some of the girls but it had been suggested they were disturbing local residents also. When deciding on the number to use it was determined that it needed to be easy to remember when in a panick and easy to find by touch, in case the caller was in the dark or thick smoke. 999 was deemed to be the sensible and more practical choice for reasons such as 111 potentially being triggered by faulty equipment or lines rubbing together and the first 0 of 000 calling the switchboard. Due to the position of the holes, 999 was the easiest to find and dial on a rotary telephone if visibility was poor or people were in a rush. It was also easy to remember. However, with modern technology it is easier to accidentally dial a number involving the same three digits such as 999 as it is for 911

The 999 service was first introduced in London on the 30th June 1937 along with a public education campaign informing people how to use this new service. To start with only a 12 mile radius from Oxford Circus was covered until the service was gradually rolled out to other cities across the UK. The speed of this was dependent on the automation of telephone exchanges and was unfortunately hindered by World War II meaning it wasn’t until 1976 that the service was introduced to the entire country.

"Only dial 999... if the matter is urgent; if, for instance, the man in the flat next to yours is murdering his wife or you have seen a heavily masked cat burglar peering round the stack pipe of the local bank building….If the matter is less urgent, if you have merely lost little Towser or a lorry has come to rest in your front garden, just call up the local police."

Example of public education campaign in the London Evening News

Skip 43 years and we still use the same number for the same reason, the only differences being in the technological advancements adopted by the services in order to answer these calls and allocate services efficiently.


Hannah Cheshire | Head of Marketing

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