What happened before we had 999?

Chelmsford HEOC

It’s a staggering 79 years to the day since the 999 emergency line was introduced.

But what happened before we had 999?

Previously, to make a phonecall for help people either had to call the fire, police or ambulance station directly, or dial ‘0’ and go through telephone exchange.

But, after a house fire claimed the lives of five women in 1935, there was public outcry as a neighbour’s call for help was held in a queue at the telephone exchange. As a result, the neighbour wrote a letter to the editor of The Times, which prompted the Government to set up a committee to examine the problems. The solution? The emergency 999 telephone number. After initially being introduced across the capital, after World War II the scheme was extended to major cities - and later to the whole of the UK.

So why did they choose 999? It was mainly for accessibility reasons. For example, in the dark or dense smoke, 999 could be dialled by placing a finger one hole away from the dial-stop on an old style phone, and rotating the dial to the full extent three times. The chosen number combination was perfect as it enabled users, including the visually impaired, to easily dial. Also, as you can probably guess, 999 was also chosen to make sure people could remember it easily.

Within the first week of the system operating, The Times reported that 1,336 calls had been made on the new special number; of that, it was reported that 1,073 genuine, 171 were misuses of the system, and 92 were ‘curiosity calls’.

Skipping forward to today, the 999 number now receives something in the region of 85,000 emergency calls every day, and some 31 million a year – in 2015/16 here at EEAST we topped the million mark in the space of a year for the first time ever.

Today, we receive more than 2,700 emergency calls every day. Sadly, we know not all of those are genuine; between 2013 and 2015 we received 1,248 hoax calls, and patient-facing colleagues have attended almost half of those believing them to be genuine emergencies. Inappropriate calls have ranged from ‘Is it okay for a little squirrel to die?’ to ‘I’ve gone out shopping and locked myself out of my house’.

Have you had a 999 call that takes the biscuit? Perhaps a hoax call, or someone phoning 999 for a really minor medical condition? Let our media officer Adam Gretton know with the CAD number at adam.gretton@eastamb.nhs.uk

Published 30th June, 2016

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