Why 999 for an Emergency? It all started in the UK

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999 is world's oldest emergency call service and it is still an official emergency telephone number in a number of countries. It allows the caller to contact emergency services for urgent assistance. Today, emergency control centres are located around the world using the latest high tech equipment.

Emergency Numbers

In many countries the public telephone network has a single emergency telephone number that allows a caller to contact local emergency services for assistance. The emergency number differs from country to country. It is typically a three-digit number so that it can be easily remembered and dialled quickly. Some countries have a different emergency number for each of the different emergency services. In others, 112 was introduced as a common emergency call number during the 1990s, and as the GSM standard, it is now a well known mobile telephone emergency number.

Why 999?

999 is the historic emergency number for the United Kingdom. An emergency number was suggested after a disaster in 1935 where five women died during a fire in Wimpole Street, England. Neighbours dialling 0 for the switchboard found it jammed with calls and could not alert anyone of the fire. Dialling 0 and asking the operator for police, fire or ambulance had been the recommended method since 1927. Police stations during the 1920s and 30s were often receiving too many visitors alerting them to emergencies and having to field calls from their telephones.

Things needed to change.

The General Post Office, who ran the telephone network, proposed a three digit number that would trigger a special signal and flashing light at the exchange. The operators could then divert their attention to these emergency calls. In order to find the new emergency number in the dark it was suggested an end number was used so it could be found easily by touch. 111 was rejected because it could be triggered by faulty equipment or lines rubbing together. 222 would have connected to the Abbey local telephone exchange as numbers in the early telephone network represented the first three letters (ABBey = 222). 000 could not be used as the first 0 would have dialled the operator. So, 999 was deemed the sensible choice.

The first 999 call.

The system came into place on 1 July 1937. Several people have claimed to have made the first 999 call on the 2nd or 3rd July. One early emergency call, reported in one newspaper to be the first, came on 8 July 1937 from a Mrs Beard of Hampstead, England. She reported a burglary and that her husband was chasing the suspect. He was promptly caught. During the first week there were 1,336 calls made to 999.

We’re always interested in anything that helps in improving emergency response capabilities. Being able to work efficiently is one of the reasons D4H was created.

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