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The 999 Call Celebrates Its 80th Birthday

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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The world’s first emergency service call system was rolled out in London on 30 June 1937

Today is the 80th anniversary of the world’s first emergency service call system, with the first 999 call taking place in London on 30 June 1937.

The system was established after a fatal fire at a doctor surgery led to proposals for a new way to telephone operators to identify emergency calls and the creation of an easy to remember number.

The first suggestions were 707, as these keys spell ‘SOS’, 333 and 111. However telephone wires moving in the wind could be transmitted as ‘111’ so 999 was chosen for practical reasons. Of course 911 is the number in the US, 000 in Australia and 112 across Europe.

By xJasonRogersx (Jason Rogers) - http://www.flickr.com/photos/restlessglobetrotter/2626046614/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12646490

999 calls

More than 1,000 calls were made during the first week in operation but there were some teething problems. Operators were alerted via flashing red lights and hooters, but the sounds were so loud that staff looked to reduce noise with tennis balls.

World War II also impacted the nationwide rollout. Glasgow was the second city to be covered in 1938 but it was not until ten years later until the majority of towns and cities were able to use it.

Today, BT handles 30 million calls for the police, ambulance, fire and coastguard services – 560,000 a week. Ninety-seven percent are answered within five seconds and Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest times with 5,000 calls an hour. Overall, New Year’s Eve is the busiest day of the year with around 9,000 calls.

More than a third aren’t genuine calls and are often children playing with a handset or pocket dials. Hoaxes have been made since the start of the service, including one incident where the callers asked for Mountain Rescue because the person was stuck on the top bunk bed.

“Recent events in the UK mean people are acutely aware of the work of the emergency services and the value of the 999 service,” said Nick Hale, managing director of BT Ventures.

“I am extremely proud of the BT operators and their role in 999. They are an extremely capable and committed team working at the sharp end of the most important communication services in the country. Countless lives have been saved over the last 80 years because of their professionalism and dedication.”

Police security crowd control © chrisdorney Shutterstock

In line with wider industry trends, the majority of calls are made via a mobile phone – almost two thirds. However this makes it more difficult to locate the caller and slows down responses. Emergency services might spend a long time searching for the incident, while operators have to ask more questions.

To this end, Advanced Mobile Location (AML) has been developed by BT, EE and HTC and can pinpoint a user’s location to within 30 metres using a smartphone’s GPS.

This information is sent via a free text to BT’s 999 call centre, which is invisible to the user, and is automatically paired with the phone call before being validated against the network cell information to ensure it is valid. This process takes approximately 18 seconds. AML claims to be 4,000 times more accurate and is now integrated into Android in the UK.

Other companies are also working on making mobile 999 calls more effective, including Google, while a system that would let users livestream emergency incidents has also been piloted.

BT’s last major anniversary was the 80th birthday of the K6 red telephone box. It was not the first phone box (they appeared in 1921) but it was certainly the most iconic and an instant hit when it arrived on the capital’s streets in 1936.

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