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75th Anniversary of the World's First Dedicated Emergency Phone Service

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Today (Sat 30th June) marks the 75th anniversary of the world's first dedicated emergency call service, in the UK known as 999.

The 999 service was launched in London on June 30, 1937, following the deaths of five women in a fire at the home of a London surgeon in November 1935. This tragedy led to a committee being set up to look at how telephone operators could easily identify emergency calls. After a consultation the new easy to remember standard number 999 was agreed on, becoming the world's first emergency number. Glasgow became the second city to have the service in 1938 with it being extended to all major towns and cities by 1948.

The service has expanded rapidly since it began and when red lights and klaxons would tell the operators an emergency call was being received. The first week of the service in 1937 saw more than a thousand calls made to the new number. This has increased to an average of 597,000 calls a week across the UK.

British Telecom (BT) operators answer more than 98 percent of the 31 million calls made annually from fixed and mobile phones within five seconds. The early hours of New Year's Day is traditionally the busiest time when up to 13,500 calls can be received each hour.

When BT operators pass calls to the emergency services, 52 per cent go to the police, 41 per cent to the ambulance service, six per cent to the fire and rescue service and one per cent to the coastguard and cave and mountain rescue services.

When 999 was originally chosen, it was selected in the era of rotary dial phones, and the number was therefore unlikely to be dialed by accident. The problem of misdialed numbers has escalated though since phones switched to push-buttons, and especially as many mobile phone keypad locks will still dial the emergency number if the buttons are pressed in the correct sequence accidentally - most often in pockets and bags.

BT says that around half of the 85,000 calls received daily do not involve requests for help, but are children messing about, or missdialed calls from phones in pockets.

In the UK, although 999 is the commonly used emergency number, operators also accepts calls to the pan-European emergency number, 112.

In North America, the first emergency phone service was set up in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, Manitoba and also adopted the UK's 999 convention. This was changed to their more familiar 911 when the USA adopted it for their own nationwide service in 1968.

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Tags: british telecom  911  999  112  UK