999 (emergency telephone number)
Countries and territories using 999 include the United Kingdom, Ireland, Poland, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Macau, Bahrain, Qatar, Bangladesh, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore, Zimbabwe, Kingdom of Swaziland, and Trinidad and Tobago.
999 is the historic emergency number for the United Kingdom, but calls are also accepted on the European Union emergency number, 112, and from mobile phones, the United States emergency number, 911. All calls are answered by 999 operators. Calls are always free.
In the United Kingdom there are four emergency services which maintain full-time Emergency Control Centres (ECC), to which 999 emergency calls may be directly routed by emergency operators in telephone company Operator Assistance Centres (OAC). These services are as follows, listed in the order of percentage of calls received:
Other emergency services may also be reached through the 999 system, but do not maintain permanent Emergency Control Centres. All of these emergency services are summoned through the ECC of one of the four principal services listed above:
- Lifeboat service
- Mountain rescue service
- Cave rescue service
- Moorland search and rescue service (particularly in Cornwall and Yorkshire)
- Quicksand search and rescue service (operating in the extensive quicksands of Morecambe Bay)
- Mine rescue service
- Bomb disposal (provided by the military)
First introduced in the London area on 30 June 1937, the UK's 999 number is the world's oldest emergency call service. The system was introduced following a fire on 10 November 1935 in a house on Wimpole Street in which five women were killed. A neighbour had tried to telephone the fire brigade and was so outraged at being held in a queue by the Welbeck telephone exchange that he wrote a letter to the editor of The Times, which prompted a government inquiry.
The initial scheme covered a 12-mile radius around Oxford Circus and the public were advised only to use it in ongoing emergency if "for instance, the man in the flat next to yours is murdering his wife or you have seen a heavily masked cat burglar peering round the stack pipe of the local bank building." The first arrest – for burglary – took place a week later and the scheme was extended to major cities after World War II and then to the whole UK in 1976.
The 9-9-9 format was chosen based on the 'button A' and 'button B' design of pre-payment coin-operated public payphones in wide use (first introduced in 1925) which could be easily modified to allow free use of the 9 digit on the rotary dial in addition to the 0 digit (then used to call the operator), without allowing free use of numbers involving other digits; other combinations of free call 9 and 0 were later used for more purposes, including multiples of 9 (to access exchanges before STD came into use) as a fail-safe for attempted emergency calls, e.g. 9 or 99, reaching at least an operator.
As it happens, the choice of 999 was fortunate for accessibility reasons, compared with e.g. lower numbers: in the dark or in dense smoke, 999 could be dialled by placing a finger one hole away from the dial stop (see the articles on Rotary dial and GPO telephones) and rotating the dial to the full extent three times. This enables all users including the visually impaired to easily dial the emergency number. It is also the case that it is relatively easy for 111, and other low-number sequences, to be dialled accidentally, including when transmission wires making momentary contact produce a pulse similar to dialling (e.g. when overhead cables touch in high winds).
Hoax calls and improper use are an issue. For these reasons, there are frequent public information campaigns in the UK on the correct use of the 999 system.
Alternative three-digit numbers for non-emergency calls have also been introduced in recent years. 101 is used for non-urgent calls in England and Wales. Meanwhile, trials of 111 as a number to access health services in the UK for urgent but not life-threatening cases began in 2010.
In 2008-2009, Nottinghamshire Police ran a successful pilot of Pegasus, a database containing the details of people with physical and learning disabilities or mental health problems, who have registered with the force because their disabilities make it difficult for them to give spoken details when calling the police. Those registered on the database are issued with a personal identification number (PIN) that can be used in two ways. By phone - either 999 or the force's non-emergency 101 number can be used - once a person is put through to the control room, they only need to say "Pegasus" and their PIN. Their details can then be retrieved from the database and the caller can quickly get on with explaining why they have called. In person - the Pegasus PIN can be told or shown to a police officer. Pegasus is also used by the City of London Police, Dyfed Powys Police, Surrey Police & Lincolnshire Police.
The introduction of push-button (landline, cordless and mobile) telephones has produced a problem for UK emergency services, due to the ease of same-digit sequences being accidentally keyed, e.g., by objects in the same pocket as a telephone (termed 'pocket dialling') or by children playing with a telephone. This problem is less of a concern with emergency numbers that use two different digits, such as 112 and 911 although on landlines 112 suffers much of the same risk of false generation as the 111 code which was considered and rejected when the original choice of 999 was made.
The pan-European 112 code was introduced in the UK in April 1995 with little publicity. It connects to existing 999 circuits. The GSM standard mandates that the user of a GSM phone can dial 112 without unlocking the keypad, a feature that can save time in emergencies but that also causes some accidental calls. All mobile telephones will make emergency calls with the keypad locked. Originally a valid SIM card was not required to make a 999/112 emergency call in the UK. However, as a result of high numbers of untraceable hoax calls being made, this feature is now blocked by all UK networks. Most UK mobile telephone handsets will dial 999/112 without a SIM inserted (or with a locked/invalid SIM), but the call will not be connected. Following the blocking of SIM-less calls, in 2009 the UK networks introduced emergency call roaming. This allows a user with a valid SIM of a UK network to make emergency calls on any network for which they have coverage.
It has been reported that some mobile phone handsets sold in the United Kingdom and Ireland may connect calls dialled as 911 to the GSM standard emergency number 112. It is also possible that 911 may be mapped inappropriately to emergency services in some VoIP equipment or private networks. However, the digits 911 could form the start of a normal local number in Ireland or the United Kingdom, so the code is not supported by the public telephone networks. This is simply a quirk of programming. 911 is not the official number and cannot be relied upon in case of an emergency.
999 or 112 is used to contact the emergency services upon witnessing or being involved in an emergency. In the United Kingdom, the numbers 999 and 112 both connect to the same service, and there is no priority or charge for either of them.
An emergency can be:
- A person in immediate danger of injury or whose life is at risk
- Suspicion that a crime is in progress
- Structure on fire
- Another serious incident which needs immediate emergency service attendance
On dialling 999 or 112 an operator at BT, Cable & Wireless or Level 3 Communications will answer and ask, "Emergency. Which service?" Previously operators asked "Which service do you require?" (approximately up to the mid-90s). The 999 call service previously provided by Cable & Wireless will be transferred to BT by December 2013.
The operator will then transfer the call to the appropriate service's own call-taker. If the caller is unsure as to which service they require, the operator will default the call to the police, and if an incident requires more than one service, for instance a road traffic accident with injuries and trapped people, depending on the service the caller has chosen, this service will alert the other services for the caller (while the operator has to also contact each emergency service individually, regardless of whether the caller has remained on the line). The caller will be connected to the service which covers the area that they are (or appear to be) calling from.
On 6 October 1998, BT introduced a new system whereby all the information about the location of the calling telephone was transmitted electronically to the relevant service rather than having to read it out (with the possibility of errors). This system is called EISEC (Enhanced Information Service for Emergency Calls). Previously, the operator had to start the connection to the emergency service control room by stating the location of the operator, followed by the caller's telephone number, e.g. "Bangor connecting 01248 300 000". It was common for the person calling to be confused as to why the operator was talking to the emergency service, and the caller frequently talked over the operator. Only around 50% of the emergency authorities have EISEC, although the number is ever increasing, so, in those cases without EISEC present, the operator still has to pass their location and the caller's number.
The rooms in which operators work are called operator assistance centres (OACs). In Wales they are located in Newport and Bangor. 999/112 calls from mobile telephones are usually answered in an OAC in Inverness, Scotland, or Blackburn, England. Cable & Wireless Operator Services are based in Glasgow and Birmingham. C&W primarily handle 999 calls for Virgin Media and T Mobile.
The rooms in which emergency response operators work are called Emergency Control Centres (ECCs).
In some situations there may be specific instructions on nearby signs to notify some other authority of an emergency before calling 999. For example, bridges carrying railways over roads may carry signs advising that if a road vehicle strikes the bridge the railway authority (Network Rail in most instances) (on a given number) should be called first to alert the railway operator of the potential of a major incident occurring should a train pass over the damaged bridge. Network Rail has its own procedures to alert trains to the emergency and to stop them if necessary. The instructions on the signs then state 999 should then be dialled.
999 is also accessible via SMS for pre-registered users.
It is important for the caller to be aware of their location when phoning for the emergency services; the caller's location will not be passed onto the emergency services immediately, and finding the location requires a combination of efforts from both parties. However it is possible to trace both landline and mobile telephone numbers with the BT operator; the former can be traced to an address. The latter can be immediately traced to a grid reference according to the transmitter being used, however this is only accurate to a certain wide area — for more specific traces senior authority must be acquired and an expensive operation can be conducted to trace the mobile phone to within a few metres.
On some occasions callers will be put through to the wrong area service - this is called a "misrouted nines". The most common reason for this is when a mobile phone calls 999 and is using a radio transmitter that is located in another force; most frequently these are calls that are made within a few miles of a border. Upon establishing the incident location, the emergency service operator will relay the information to the responsible force for their dispatch. In most areas, other forces will respond to incidents just within the border if they could get there quicker, assist, and then hand over to the other force when they arrive.
In the United Kingdom the Highways Agency have placed blue signs with the location printed on them, at approximately 500-metre intervals on their managed routes, such as motorways and major A-Roads. These signs contain a code which can be given to the emergency operator to locate you quickly. For example, a sign may say "M1 A 100.1". This translates as the M1 motorway, on the "Alpha" carriageway, at 100.1 kilometres from its start (or nominal start). The "Alpha" and "Bravo" carriageways are designated by the Highways Agency to each side of the road, dependent upon which direction it travels; other letters are used for additional carriageways at intersections.
Abandoned and hoax calls
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An abandoned call is when a caller, intentionally or otherwise, rings 999 and then ends the call or stays silent; this could be for any number of reasons, including coercion or harm coming to the caller. Abandoned calls are filtered by BT operators and are either disconnected or passed to the police. All abandoned calls are checked by the police.
The most common reasons for abandoned calls include:
- Accidental dialling of 999 on mobile phones. As a GSM standard, mobile phones still allow emergency calls to be made even with the keypad locked.
- Faulty phone lines.
In Ireland, 999 (and the European and GSM standard 112) are the national emergency numbers. The 999 and 112 service is able to respond in English, Irish, Polish, French, German and Italian. 999 and 112 operators in Ireland answer the calls in under one second and say "Emergency, which service?". The caller may then request the Gardaí (the Irish police), ambulance, fire brigade, coastguard, or cave and mountain rescue service. The caller is then transferred to the emergency dispatcher for the appropriate service.
Hong Kong and Macau
Macau also adopted the 999 number; it also introduced two emergency hotline numbers: 110 (mainly for tourists from mainland China) and 112 (mainly for tourists from overseas).
The worldwide emergency number for GSM mobile phones, 112, also works on all GSM networks in the country. Calls made to this number are redirected to the 999 call centre.
The 999 emergency services in Malaysia is staffed by about 138 telephonists from Telekom Malaysia. Ongoing upgrading works are taking place to introduce the Computer-Telephony Integration (CTI) for hospital exchanges, digital mapping to track the callers' locations and Computer Assisted Despatching (CAD) for online connectivity among the agencies providing the emergency services in the country. All calls to the number are made free of charge.
The worldwide emergency number for GSM mobile phones, 112, also works on all GSM networks in the country. Calls made to this number are redirected to the 999 call centre.
The 112 emergency number is an all-service number in Poland like in other EU states, but old numbers that were traditionally designated for emergencies are still in use parallel to 112. Those are 999 for ambulance, 998 for fire brigade and 997 for police.
United Arab Emirates
In the United Arab Emirates the 999 service is used to contact the police who are also capable of forwarding the call as appropriate to the ambulance or fire services. The number 998 connects directly to the ambulance service and 997 to the fire brigade.
In Singapore, the number 999 was inherited from British rule and continued after independence. The number 995 was later additionally established in 1984 for direct lines to the fire brigade and ambulance services of the Singapore Civil Defence Force.
Kingdom of Swaziland
The Kingdom of Swaziland uses the 999 emergency number for police contact only. Also 975 for Human Trafficking reports. The other emergency numbers in use are 977 for emergency medical assistance and 933 for the fire service.
Trinidad and Tobago
In Trinidad and Tobago, 999 is used to contact the police only. The number 811 is used for the ambulance service and 990 for the fire brigade.
|Look up 999 in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- 101 - non-emergency number in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland
- 000 - emergency number in Australia
- 111 - emergency number in New Zealand
- 112 - emergency number across the European Union and on GSM mobile networks across the world
- 119 - emergency number in Jamaica and parts of Asia
- 911 - emergency number in the United States, Canada and the Cayman Islands
- Emergency Control Centre
- Emergency telephone
- Emergency telephone number
- In case of emergency
- 999 (BBC TV series)
- Police 101 non-emergency number for contacting the police in England, Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland
- Single Non-Emergency Number
- Data from British Telecom, based on the year 2011, and available on-line here.
- Service details here.
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- Welcome to 101, Home Office
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- RTÉ News (11 February 2009)
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