What is this 999 thing?

Posted: January 2, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,
Emergency telephone on a beach.

The telephone number 999 is used in the UK to summon the assistance of the emergency services, which include the police, ambulance, fire, and coastguard.  Whilst the use of the European number 112 will also work, 999 is the preferred number used by UK residents.

But, where and when did the 999 number come about?

Prior to the introduction of technical communication, people had either to go to a police station or stop a patrolling officer to report crimes and incidents.  That was until the introduction of the telephone.

From 1929, a person requiring emergency services had to dial zero and tell the operator which service they wanted.  Often these calls were mixed in with all other calls to the operator, as this was the only way to place a telephone call at this time.  The operator was the only person that could put calls through to other telephone numbers.  In 1936, the 999 emergency telephone number first came into use in London.

This was the World’s first dedicated number to summon the emergency services and has become the oldest automatic telephone service.

At its inception, it was recognised that the number used had to be a 3-digit number to avoid accidental misdialling.  It had to be easy to find in the dark or a smoke-filled room and unlikely to cause faults on the telephony system or get through to a number already assigned to a subscriber.

An end of the dial number was the best way to find the emergency number easily.  The wind rubbing two telephone cables together number could generate the 111 number.  The zero number was already allocated to operator services so could not be used.  A local telephone exchange already had the 222 number, which left 999 as the first best available solution.

Today, telecommunication service operators, using the latest high-tech equipment pass millions of calls a year to police emergency control centres around the country before they dispatch resources re-direct the calls accordingly.

When made, the 999 call goes straight through to emergency call operators employed by the telecommunications providers, the main one on the UK being BT (formerly British Telecom).

Every 999 call BT operators receive is treated as a genuine emergency and they try to ensure that no time is lost in dealing with the call.

The first available BT operator in any of six regional call-handing centres picks up the 999 call and always treats it as a genuine emergency.  By the time the caller is asked “Emergency, which service?” their fixed line and address, or mobile number and transmitter zone code (which can be narrowed down to a square kilometre in urban areas but it is much bigger in rural areas), is displayed on the operator’s screen with the numbers of the nearest emergency services.  This information is passed to the emergency services when they have difficulty obtaining such information from the caller.  If the police are requested, the operator transfers the caller to the police emergency centre nearest to where the call was made.

However, almost half of the 30 million emergency calls made through BT each year do not involve actual emergencies.  Children playing or customers accidentally dialling 999 or 112 from a mobile handset in a pocket or handbag make most of these calls. There is an accidental 999/112 call to BT every 4 seconds.

So that the police are not overwhelmed with these “silent calls,” the BT 999 operators filter them.

Any of the “silent calls” having suspicious noises in the background are instantly connected to the police.

In other instances, the operators try to obtain a response by asking repeatedly “which service is required.”  If there is no reply, they ask, “If you cannot speak but need help please tap the (mobile phone) handset screen.”  When muffled voices are heard in the background, the operator may not be able to decide which or whether an emergency service is needed.  Here, the operator will connect the call to an automated, police, voice response system, which tells the caller “You are through to the police.  If you require assistance, please press five on your keypad twice, now.”  The call is immediately connected to the appropriate police area if they do.

Whilst listening to the call, if the operator hears anything unusual they will connect the call, even if the “five” buttons are not pressed.  There are many reasons why a caller may remain silent.  Of the 7500 calls like this that go through to the police, around 75 are after the caller hits the five buttons.

When there is no response to any of the prompts and just general noise in the background, the operator will decide that the call is not a genuine emergency they will end it.

Every 999 call is recorded and available for any official inquiry.

It was not until the 1980s that a tape machine used to record 999 calls.

First 999 mobile call was made in 1986.

Don’t forget to book your place on the Crime Fiction – Making it Real weekend workshop March 2012

  1. This is interesting information. Thanks.


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