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Telephones in emergencies

NTC publicity, promoting telephone use in emergencies, 1890s

A better emergency service (1937) : dialling 999

The 999 service - a dedicated memorable number for summoning the police, fire or ambulance - dates from 1937.

In 1935, five women were killed by a fire in London's West End. A neighbour complained that she called the operator on 0 to summon help - but that the fire brigade arrived before the exchange answered her call. The 999 service was then set up to ensure that all emergency calls had priority treatment.

The code was chosen for several reasons. Having decided on a 'three digits the same' code (necessary for the London network), some combinations were immediately ruled out. '111' would have been the quickest code to dial, but numbers beginning 1 were not then used. '222' was already in use (it was the digit equivalent of the ABBey exchange) and 0 was already the code for the operator.

Most of the other digits could have been used but the final choice came out of a need to ensure that emergency calls could be made from kiosks and other public telephones, without needing to insert any coins. This was already the case for non-urgent calls to the operator - a special dial allowed free dialling of the digit 0 - and it was a relatively simple task to extend the facility to the digit 9 too.

999 cartoon

Saved by the telephone : mobile paramedic

Many of the stories featured on the BBC TV series '999' provide graphic examples of the life saving powers of the mobile phone.

Take Kevin Burgess, for instance. While hunting with a shotgun in a dense forest near Dundee Scotland, Kevin fell into a ditch, causing his shotgun to go off and hit him in the leg. Lying at the bottom of the ditch, he called the emergency services on his mobile phone and was put through to ambulance controller Steve Robertson.

Steve immediately realised that the wound was deep and that Kevin would bleed to death before the ambulance could reach him. Steve talked to Kevin over the mobile and helped him put a tourniquet in place to stem the flow of blood. Steve then kept Kevin talking and conscious until the paramedics reached him.

Without his mobile phone, Kevin would certainly have died.

PA1 and PA3 pillars - Connected Earth artefacts, now at the Avoncroft Museum

Police call pillars : pillars of society

The arrival of the telegraph and telephone meant that people could get in touch quickly, which was especially useful if you needed help in a hurry.

The emergency services soon warmed to this idea and started to put telegraph alarm points - and later special telephone boxes on the streets in urban centres, which gave both policemen and the general public a hotline to the police station.

The PA1 was the standard police telephone pillar used in the 1930s, which was later replaced by the PA3.

The pillar telephones fulfilled a need and people used them to ask for directions or seek advice, particularly in central London, as well as for emergencies. In the end, policemen were stationed beside the pillar in Piccadilly Circus to deal with the public directly. This was perhaps the most well known of all PA3s and is now officially preserved as a 'listed building'. However, today all is not as it seems. The original pillar 'disappeared' and the unit there now is a recycled spare.

Gamewell fire alarm sender - Connected Earth artefact, now at the Museum of London.

Gamewell fire alarm system (1900s) : the early form of 999

One vital benefit of the telegraph was the speed, with which it could summon the emergency services.

This Gamewell fire alarm system allowed the public to call the fire brigade immediately, using senders located around the area covered. Manchester had a particularly extensive public system, and similar installations were installed in large private houses, royal palaces and business premises.

All someone needed to do was break the glass and pull the lever. The sender then transmitted a telegraph message to a central station, identifying the location and raising the alarm.

A printer connected to the central control equipment provided a permanent time-stamped record of the incident.

999 : learning to call for help

This film informed the public about the correct procedure for calling the emergency services.

Emergency calls receive priority attention and are switched through to the appropriate emergency service.

For security and to discourage hoaxers, callers are always asked for their location and telephone number..

999 call for help


Narrator: This is an emergency.

Operator: Emergency, which service please?

Ambulance and police. Your exchange and number, please. I'm connecting you to the ambulance now.

Ambulance Operator: Ambulance service. Where please?

Caller: Call box by the NorthGate, King Edward VIIth Pass.

Police Operator: Police, yes, telephone kiosk ...

Narrator: In an emergency, could you summon help quickly and correctly by dialling 999?

Operator: Emergency which service please?

Narrator: Asking for the services you need and giving your exchange and telephone number.

Operator: Please remember, I am your link with the emergency services. Your exchange and telephone number help me to give you the correct connection.

Narrator: Remember, to make an emergency call, dial 999, ask for the service you require and give your exchange and phone number. Help the operator to help you.

An emergency line : Marjory Chapman

Marjorie Chapman, was born in 1920 in Willesden Green, north London to a normal working class family. Neither she, her family or friends had a telephone and she didn't actually use one until she joined the GPO as a telephonist in 1935, when she was 15 years old.

Long since retired, she talks about the essential service provided by the Piper emergency line and how it helped her after she had suffered a nasty fall.

audio clip


It records in a centre where I imagine there's a few operators there. I press the button on there and it records in this centre and they come on and speak to you. But the other week I fell out of bed and I couldn't get up off the floor so I pressed the button and said what had happened and they said all right they'd have to send the ambulance men to get me up which they did, and made sure that I was all right. This was at three o'clock in the morning but they are very good and they don't mind. Of course they're used to it you see. I suppose if it's your duty that night, well, you have to get on with it don't you?

Piper emergency line user : Mrs Barbara Flux

Mrs Barbara Flux, born in 1924, grew up in Weymouth the daughter of hoteliers, which she subsequently became herself. Her family had a phone from an early age to enable people to book rooms at the hotel, although confirmation was always followed up with a deposit in writing.

Retired from the business today, she talks about how the phone has become an even more essential communication tool since then, and in particular her reliance on the Piper emergency line to provide essential ease-of-mind during old age.

audio clip


The piper service which is excellent, I had that installed a couple of years ago because I'm disabled and also I must admit that the emergency call is essential for me because I feel that living alone, if anything like a fall or something like that they are immediately available. I will say another thing about the emergency is that as I'm on an emergency register, the phone is an essential part of communication for me to the outside world because other than the phone I could be here completely alone with a broken leg or a broken neck and because I rely heavily on the phone for contact the odd times that it has broken they have been here within hours to repair and replace.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

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