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The 999 service is 80 years old today

Press release   •   Jun 30, 2017 09:48 BST

Operators Answering 999 Emergency Calls 1947.tif

BT is today celebrating the 80th anniversary of the UK’s 999 emergency service - which handles more than 1.8 million calls a year across Yorkshire and the Humber.

The world’s oldest emergency service was launched in London on 30 June 1937. A fire at a London doctor’s surgery in November 1935, which led to the tragic death of five women, resulted in a committee being set up by the government to look at the problem of how telephone operators could identify emergency calls.

The committee proposed there should be a standard easy-to-remember nationwide number to alert the emergency services. They considered using 707, which corresponded to the letters SOS on the telephone dial and 333, but the technology of the time would not allow these to be used and 999 was chosen as the most practical number.

Glasgow became the second city to benefit from the service in 1938. The Second World War delayed the rollout of the service across the UK, but it was eventually extended to all major towns and cities by 1948.

More than a thousand calls were made during the first week of the service in London in 1937, with each 999 call triggering flashing red lights and hooters to alert operators in the exchange to give priority to the emergency call. The hooters were apparently so loud that the operators pushed a tennis ball into the horn to reduce the volume until modifications were made.

Hoax or unnecessary calls were a feature of the 999 service from the very beginning, including a complaint about bagpipes being played outside a house and a dispute between a neighbour and the local coalman.

BT advisors now answer around 560,000 calls a week in the UK – including about 35,000 from Yorkshire and the Humber. Of around 30 million calls received a year from fixed and mobile phones, more than 97 per cent are answered within five seconds.

Some of the highest numbers of calls made to 999 are around midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, with around 5,000 calls an hour being received by BT. The early hours of New Year’s Day are traditionally the busiest time of the year when up to 9,000 callscan be received each hour.

Tom Keeney, chairman of BT’s Yorkshire and Humber regional board, said: “Recent events in the UK mean people are acutely aware of the work of the emergency services and the value of the 999 service. I am extremely proud of the BT operators and their role in 999. They are a highly competent team working at the sharp end of the most important communication services in the country. In Yorkshire and the Humber countless lives have been saved over the last 80 years because of their professionalism and dedication.”

The latest development in the 999 service isAdvanced Mobile Location (AML), a new mobile location system, pioneered by BT, to pinpoint 999 calls from mobiles more precisely. When an emergency call is made with an AML-enabled smartphone, the phone automatically activates its location service and sends its position in a text message to the 999 service. AML is up to 4,000 times more accurate than existing location systems. It is now integrated into the Android operating system in the UK and is being adopted across Europe and the rest of the world.

Around 35 per cent of the 30 million calls answered by BT each year do not involve actual requests for help. The majority of these are made by children playing with home phones or people accidentally dialling 999 or the European emergency number 112, often from a mobile handset in a pocket or handbag.

The proportion of calls connected by BT to the various emergency services is: Police - 49 per cent, Ambulance - 47 per cent, Fire and Rescue Service - four per cent and less than one per cent to the Coastguard and Cave and Mountain rescue services.

About BT

BT’s purpose is to use the power of communications to make a better world. It is one of the world’s leading providers of communications services and solutions, serving customers in 180 countries. Its principal activities include the provision of networked IT services globally; local, national and international telecommunications services to its customers for use at home, at work and on the move; broadband, TV and internet products and services; and converged fixed-mobile products and services. BT consists of six customer-facing lines of business: Consumer, EE, Business and Public Sector, Global Services, Wholesale and Ventures, and Openreach.

For the year ended 31 March 2017, BT Group’s reported revenue was £24,062m with reported profit before taxation of £2,354m.

British Telecommunications plc (BT) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of BT Group plc and encompasses virtually all businesses and assets of the BT Group. BT Group plc is listed on stock exchanges in London and New York.

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