Many countries across the world use ‘999’ as the number to call for emergency services. As well as the UK, some of these include Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Hong Kong, Kenya, Botswana, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malaysia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago and the United Arab Emirates.
Although ‘999’ is the official emergency number for the UK, emergency calls to the 112 number are also accepted. Calls to these numbers are always free. The four main emergency services that can be reached on these numbers are the police force, ambulance service, fire brigade and the coastguard. However, callers can also be asked to be put through to lifeboat, mountain rescue, cave rescue, mine rescue and bomb disposal services.
But why was 999 chosen as the number on which to make an emergency call? In this article, we’ll explore the reasons for using 999, explain what happens when you call 999 and give the emergency numbers in some of the other countries around the world.
‘999’ was chosen as the emergency services number in the UK because the ‘9’ digit could be easily modified on coin-operated public payphones for free use.
The 999 number was also ideal for accessibility, as the ‘9’ digit — which was one hole away from the finger stop on rotary dial telephones — could be easily found by the visually impaired or in the dark or in dense smoke.
Read on to find out more about the UK’s emergency number.
The world’s oldest emergency call service, 999 was introduced as the emergency number in London on 30th June 1937.
The service was introduced after five women were killed in a house fire on Wimpole Street in London on 10th November 1935. A government inquiry was prompted following a letter which was written to the editor of The Times newspaper by an outraged neighbour, who had tried to call the fire brigade but had their call held in a queue by the Welbeck phone exchange, which meant the emergency response was delayed.
Initially, the 999 emergency number covered a 12-mile radius around Oxford Circus, but by 1938 it was also implemented in Glasgow. The service ground to a halt during World War II, but in 1946, it was extended to Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle and then the whole of the UK in 1976.
In 1986, a system was introduced to allow people to make 999 calls on all mobile phones.
While the reasoning for using 999 as the number to call emergency services made complete sense in the time of the rotary dial telephone, some disadvantages have become apparent with the introduction of push-button telephones and mobiles. On these types of phones, it’s easy to accidentally press the same button repeatedly (“pocket-dial”) or for children to press the same number three times in a row while playing.
Emergency numbers that use two or more different digits (for example, 112 and 911) are less likely to experience this problem.
If you’ve dialled 999 by mistake and you hang up without speaking to the operator, your call will be classed as a “silent call”, and you will receive a callback to check whether everything is OK. If you do not answer, an officer will then be sent to your address. So, to ensure you’re not wasting the emergency services’ resources, you should stay on the line and explain to the operator that the call was a mistake.
You should call the 999 emergency number if you are witnessing or are involved in an emergency situation. An emergency is defined as an unexpected, urgent and often dangerous situation which poses an immediate risk to life, health, property or the environment. Most emergency situations require immediate action to prevent the situation from getting any worse.
Some examples of emergency situations include:
- A person who needs immediate medical attention
- A structure on fire
- A crime that’s in progress or an offender is in the area
In certain situations, you will be instructed to phone an alternative number before dialling 999. If, for example, you strike a railway bridge while driving, you should look out for nearby signs that advise you to call the railway authority (usually Network Rail) first. This is so they can alert their trains to the emergency and stop them if necessary. The instructions on the sign will tell you to call 999 and ask for the police after you’ve informed the railway authority.
As already mentioned, in the UK, you can also use the 112 emergency number to connect to the 999 service. Additionally, if a 911 call is made from a mobile phone within the UK, the caller can be transferred to the 999 system.
Some alternative three-digit numbers have been introduced for non-emergencies. The number 101, for example, can be used to make non-urgent calls to the police, while 111 is the number that’s used to access health services for urgent but non-life-threatening situations.
Important emergency and non-emergency numbers
|101||Non-urgent crime and community safety|
|155||International operator assistance|
|105||Local electricity network operators|
When you call 999, this is what will typically happen:
1. Your call will be answered by an operator
An operator will answer your call saying “Emergency. Which service?” (up until the mid-90s, they would have answered with “Which service do you require?”). The initial response to all 999 calls is in English, however, callers who reply in Welsh will be transferred to Welsh-speaking operators.
If you do not answer, the operator will ask you to cough or make an alternative audible sign to indicate that you are in need of police assistance but cannot speak. If you cannot make any sound at all, your call will be put through to an automated system where you can press ‘55’ to alert the emergency services that you are in danger. This initiative is called “Silent Solution 55”.
2. Your call will be transferred to the relevant department
If you are able to tell the operator which service you require, your call will be transferred to the relevant department in the area you are calling from. If you’re unsure as to which department you require, you will be transferred to the police. If a situation requires more than one service, the operator will contact each service individually.
Traditionally, the operator connects to the emergency service by stating their own location and giving the caller’s telephone number. However, since BT introduced its EISEC (Enhanced Information Service for Emergency Calls) system on 6th October 1998, more emergency authorities are now able to transmit this information electronically.
3. You will be asked a series of questions
The emergency call handler will then ask you a series of questions in order to arrange the most appropriate help for your situation.
It is important to try to remain calm and answer the questions clearly and fully, so that help can reach you as quickly as possible.
You will receive instructions on what you should do while you are waiting for the emergency services to arrive, and you should follow this advice closely.
What information should you give when making a 999 call?
Before you call 999, you should make sure you have the following information ready:
- Your location, including the area or postcode
- The phone number you are calling from
- Details about what’s happened
While there are some countries that also use ‘999’ as their emergency number, many other countries have different emergency numbers. Some of these are as follows:
|Ireland||112 or 999||112 or 999||112 or 999|
|South Africa||10 111||10 177||10 177|
In the UK, ‘999’ was chosen as the emergency services number because the ‘9’ digit could be easily modified on coin-operated public payphones for free use. The 999 number was also ideal for accessibility, as the ‘9’ digit — which was one hole away from the finger stop on a rotary phone — could be found easily by the visually impaired or in the dark or in dense smoke.
999 was introduced as the emergency number in London on 30th June 1937, after five women were killed in a house fire on 10th November 1935. A government inquiry was prompted following a letter which was written to the editor of The Times by an outraged neighbour, who had tried to call the fire brigade but had their call held in a queue by the phone exchange, which meant the emergency response was delayed.
Although ‘999’ is the official emergency number for the UK, emergency calls to the 112 number are also accepted and calls to both these numbers are always free. The four main emergency services that can be reached on these numbers are the police, ambulance, fire and the coastguard, however, callers can also be asked to be put through to lifeboat, mountain rescue, cave rescue, mine rescue and bomb disposal services.