Happy 80th birthday 999: From injured seagulls to kids, seven things you need to know about the world's oldest emergency services hotline

 
Oliver Gill
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The UK had the world's first emergency services phone number (Source: BT)

The world’s oldest emergency service phone number today celebrates its 80th birthday.

BT said it handles 30m 999 calls every year – that’s about one call every second. And, it added, 97 per cent of the calls are answered within just five seconds.

Below are seven things you need to know about the service, but first... a quick question:

City AM What proportion of 999 calls are for the fire brigade? (scroll down for the answer)

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1 – Operators need a sense of humour

Proving you need to have a sense of humour, some of the service operators revealed their most bizarre calls.

Here's what they have to put up with...

Adviser: “Do you need fire, police or ambulance?"

Caller: “I’m sorry to call 999 but I was looking for 101 but I don’t know the number.”

Adviser: “Do you need fire, police or ambulance?"

Young caller: “Mountain Rescue please.”

Adviser: “Where are you?”

Young caller: “I’m on the top bunk and I can’t get down.”

Adviser: “Do you need fire, police or ambulance?"

Caller: “I need the police please it is my daughter's wedding day and her dress doesn't fit anymore. I need the police to come and help me get her in it.”

Adviser: “Do you need fire, police or ambulance?"

Caller: "I need the police. I ordered a takeaway that cost me £30 and they took it to number six, when I live at number seven."

Adviser: “Do you need fire, police or ambulance?"

Caller: “Can I get the police, someone has stolen my snowman from my garden, can you come quickly?”

Adviser: “Do you need fire, police or ambulance?"

Caller: “There’s a seagull with a broken arm.”

2 – A fire on Wimpole Street

Britain’s 999 number was launched in 1937 after a fire in a doctor’s surgery on Wimpole Street, London. Five women died in the incident, which prompted the setting up of a government committee to investigate the event and examine ways such events could be avoided in the future.

3 – 999… not the first choice

After coming up with the idea of an emergency phone line, 999 was not the committee’s first choice of digits. 707 made sense as it corresponded to SOS on the telephone dial. 303 was also considered, but both were dispensed as being less practical than 999.

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Although the emergency line was rolled out beyond London in 1938, to Glasgow, it wasn't until the Second World War that the whole of the country was given access to the number.

4 – What time of day is it harder to get through?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most 999 calls are made around midnight on Friday and Saturday evenings. Around 5,000 calls an hour are fielded as Brits roll out of pubs and bars over the weekend. But this number almost doubles, to 9,000, on News Year’s Eve.

5 – Children

More than a third (35 per cent) all 999 calls do not involve requests for help. The majority are made by children or by accident from pockets and handbags.

6 – Anomaly 999

The UK may have picked 999, but this isn't the number you need to call when you are abroad:

  • 000 Australia
  • 111 New Zealand
  • 123 Columbia
  • 100 Greece and Israel
  • 101 Argentina
  • 911 USA and Canada
  • 112 Throughout European Community and alongside national codes

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7 – Firemen aren’t that popular after all

Just four per cent of 999 calls request the fire service. Some 49 per cent of emergency requests are for the police and 47 per cent are for an ambulance.

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