First emergency phone line turns 80
LONDON — The i ntroduction of the world’s first emergency telephone number 80 years ago was celebrated on Saturday by police forces across Britain. Now t he 999 number to alert police, fire, ambulances and coast guards to emergencies is the best known number in Britain.
In London, the Metropolitan Police, described how, in its early days at Scotland Yard, a handful of police officers transmitted emergency messages by Morse code.
Today, the emergency service is run from three high-tech centralized communications complexes in Bow, Hendon and Lambeth boroughs.
In the early days of the 1930s, just 24 staff members in the old Victoria Embankment headquarters of Scotland Yard dealt with a couple hundred calls a day. The three centralized complexes now employ more than 2,000 people who deal with up to 20,000 calls daily.
The system has been upgraded and redesigned numerous times over the decades, leading to the sophisticated multiscreen automated service that prioritizes 999 calls using interactive satellite mapping, as well as access to translators in 170 languages and special text numbers for deaf people.
Police in Britain have long made use of new technology to help them fight crime. The first case of a criminal being arrested through use of telegrams was recorded in 1845.
The impetus for a new, dedicated emergency number came after a tragic event in London in 1935 when five women died in a fire at a Wimpole Street doctor’s house.
A parliamentary committee inquiry followed, and recommended a universal number easily memorized by the public and instantly recognizable to telephone operators.
After 111, 222 and 0000 were rejected, the number 999 was agreed upon, and thousands of traditional red phone boxes were converted to allow free emergency calls starting in July 1937.