BT operators now answer within five seconds 98 per cent of the 31 million UK calls received annually.
The diamond anniversary is being celebrated at BT centres in many parts of the UK.
Chet Patel, BT’s regional director for London, said: “Today, 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.
“Many people in London owe their lives to smooth and effective emergency call handling by BT operators, using the latest technologies to ensure that emergency calls are dealt with swiftly and efficiently. When lives are at stake it’s vital that no time is lost.
“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.”
Meanwhile, 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 80,000-plus 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 handset in a pocket or handbag. All have to be carefully managed by BT and the police to ensure genuine calls are dealt with effectively.
Each of the five million calls generated each year in London is handled by one of BT’s well-established 999 centres in Nottingham, Newport, Blackburn, Bangor and Glasgow, or one of the newer centres in Dundee and Portadown, which only recently began taking calls. 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 address and phone number 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.
999 Quick facts
999 was introduced on June 30, 1937, after five women died in a fire in Wimpole Street, London.
The first call was made in Hampstead days after the service launched and led to burglar Thomas Duffy, 24, being caught red handed.
Emergency callers can be connected to four services – police, ambulance, fire, and coastguard, with calls to cave or mountain rescue directed through the police.
In 1937 operators had to cope with red lamps turning on and a loud klaxon. There were fears that the noise would cause nervous strain on both day and night telephonists.
A 999 call is answered immediately and has priority over other operator calls.
More than half of callers ask to be put through to the police.
All calls are automatically and securely recorded.
Operators handle around 250 calls a day and spend around nine weeks in initial training and coaching.
There are around 85,000 calls each day, with higher volumes over the weekend days.
Experts chose 999 rather than 111 for technical reasons. Wires moving together in the wind can be transmitted as the equivalent of a 111 call.
The first mobile call to 999 was in 1986.
112 was introduced to the UK in 1993. The European number works alongside 999 in line with a European Directive.
Some of the highest call volumes occur around midnight – around 5,000 calls per hour on Friday and Saturday nights. In early hours of New Year’s Day it can reach up to 13,500 calls per hour!
Mobile phone calls make up 62 per cent of all 999s answered by BT.
Other emergency service numbers around the world
111 New Zealand
100 Greece and Israel
911 USA and Canada
112 Throughout European Community and alongside national codes
History of the 999 Emergency Service
Before the introduction of 999:
People with a telephone in their home, private subscribers, on an automated exchange would call 0 for the operator to contact the emergency services just as they would to make a regular call. If people did not have a dial, a manual exchange, they would tap the telephone cradle to attract the operators attention.
From a public kiosk the special ’emergency call’ button would be pressed so no money would need to be entered to secure the connection.
1882 The Exchange Telegraph Company introduces fire alarm call points in London. A lever is pulled in a dedicated street post to alert the local fire service. The idea is extended by other telegraph companies and in other towns.
1930s Police call points are introduced along similar lines to fire alarm call points but using telephone rather than telegraph technology.
1935 In November a serious fire at the London surgery of aural surgeon Dr Philip Franklin at 27 Wimpole Street W1 (LANgham 1440) caused the death of five women. The inquest heard that the Fire Brigade arrived at the scene before the operator had answered a neighbour’s call to alert them to the fire, and the Belgrave Committee was set up to study the problem of operators’ identifying emergency telephone calls.
The Committee believed that there should be one number throughout the country to alert the emergency services and that the number must be easy to remember. The number had to be three digits long to work in London. It was important that emergency calls could be made from coin box telephones without inserting any money (at the time money had to be inserted before making a call). It was relatively simple and inexpensive to modify call boxes to allow the 9 to be dialled without inserting coins, and the choice of 999 was made.
1937 On 30 June 1937 the 999 service was introduced to 91 automatic telephone exchanges in London. A caller dialling 999 would be connected to the operator in the same way as a regular call, but light and sound signals in the telephone exchange would alert the operator that this was a priority call. If no operator was free to make the call, the operator would break off dealing with a regular call.
In the first week there were 1336 emergency 999 calls (1073 genuine calls; 171 who wanted the operator and 91 ‘alleged practical jokers’) and 1896 emergency calls using the old way of dialling 0.
1938 The 999 service was introduced in Glasgow.
1946 The Second World War (1939-1945) delayed the expansion of the 999 service but the programme continued afterwards with Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle introducing the 999 service in 1946.
1948 By March 1948 all the larger towns served by automatic exchanges had the 999 service.
1976 All telephone exchanges in Britain are automated, allowing the 999 service to be truly nationwide.
1986 999 service is introduced for mobile phone users (replacing interim arrangements of 995, 996 and 997).
1993 In January 1993 the additional emergency code 112 was introduced alongside 999.
1998 On 6 October 1998 BT launched a new free 999 information service for the emergency services. By automatically forwarding the number and address of the phone from which the 999 call had been made, call handling and vehicle dispatch times could improve by 30 seconds.
2003 BT moves to routing all calls from fixed line by their postcode, which allowed an even closer match with emergency service catchment areas and allowed movement away from all numbers with the same area code being routed in the same way.
2004 In January 2004, BT extends the 999 location information service to allow approximate locations for mobile phones to be automatically provided to the emergency services based on radio coverage of the aerial picking-up the call. The new service is in line with the latest EC Directives on making location information available (Directive 2002/22/EC) and on privacy and data protection (Directive 2002/58/EC).
Numbers of calls
In the early 50s, when there were around 4 million customer lines, there were fewer than half a million 999 calls.
By the early 60s, there were around 7 million customer lines; approx 2.5m 999 calls made a year, rising to 4m a year by 1969.
1978 – approx 16 million lines – 9 million 999 calls made – 65% to police, 25% to ambulance, 10% to fire
1988 – approx 23 million BT lines – 19 million 999 calls handled by BT, now including calls from mobile handsets and use of push button phones (rather than dials) increasing numbers of false calls due to children “playing” with handsets
1991 – approx 25m BT lines – 22m 999 calls handled by BT
1994 – approx 26m BT lines – 22m 999 calls handled by BT
1996 – approx 27m BT lines – 20.6m 999 calls handled by BT
1998 – approx 27m BT lines – 19.7m 999 calls handled by BT
2000 – approx 28m BT lines – 24.9m 999 calls handled by BT
2001 – 31.3m 999 calls handled by BT. A massive increase, with approx half made from mobile phones, many being dialled accidentally
2006 – 30 million calls handled by BT, 50% from mobile handsets, with 60% connected to the emergency services (56% to police, 35% ambulance, 8% fire and 1% to coastguard)
2011 – 31 million calls handled by BT, 62% from mobile handsets, with 50% connected to the emergency services (52% to police, 41% ambulance, 6% fire and less than 1% to coastguard)
Rollout of 999 across the UK
Introduction dates for regions outside London 1
1 Post Office Telecommunications Journal, May 1949 (Glasgow); all others from ‘Summary – Emergency Call Service ‘999’ Introduction (Works Spec T E 6240 (sect 13)’ manuscript table and later correspondence from regions – File 0801-B
Scotland – 1938 Glasgow
Home Counties – February 1946:
Brighton (13/02/1946); Fakenham (13/02/1946); Reading (13/02/1946);
Chelmsford (13/02/1946); Gt Yarmouth (13/02/1946); Ryde (13/02/1946);
Chichester (13/02/1946); Guildford (13/02/1946); Sevenoaks (13/02/1946)
Cromer (13/02/1946); Hertford (13/02/1946); Southend (13/02/1946);
Dorking (13/02/1946); Kings Lynn (13/02/1946); Slough (13/02/1946);
Epping (13/02/1946); Portsmouth (13/02/1946);
Midlands – February 1946:
Birmingham Director Area (25/02/1946) Coventry (19/02/46)
North Eastern Region – January 1946:
Bridlington (21/01/1946); Middlesboro York (21/01/1946)
North Western Region – May 1945
Liverpool director area – 9 exchanges (30/05/1945) Burnley (5-6/12/1945)
Rochdale (06/12/1045) Macclesfield (09/03/1946); Manchester (09/03/1946)
South Western Region – January 1946:
Cheltenham (-Prestbury) (31/01/1946); Kingsbridge (01/01/1946); Torquay (-Chelston, Churston, Paignton, Preston, St Marychurch, Shiphay Collation) (28/01/1946);
Dursley (31/01/1946); Plymouth (01/01/1946);
Exeter (-Pinhoe, Topsham) (07/01/1946); Swindon (31/01/1946);
Gloucester (-Barnwood) (31/01/1946); Truro (01/01/1946)
Welsh and Border Counties Region – October 1946:
Newport, Monmouthshire (25/10/1946)
Northern Ireland –September 1946:
Ballymena (23/09/1946); Enniskillen (23/09/1946);
Belfast (23/09/1946); Londonderry (23/09/1946)
Typical numbers of 999 calls each week in 1949 were:
London, 3000; Liverpool, 90; Portsmouth, 75; Edinburgh, 70; Cambridge, 25
Typical numbers of 999 calls each week in 1951 were: