First 999 Call
For decades alerting the emergency services by telephone had required dialling ‘0’ and going through the operator, no priority evidently attaching to that number being dialled for a life-or-death call or to connect to Mr Smith at the grocer’s. In 1935 a tragedy that might have been averted had the fire service been contacted sooner occurred in Wimpole Street, London, five women dying in a house-fire. A caller had tried to ‘phone for help, but the operator was busy.
The number 999 was chosen for the system that launched on June 30 1937 for technical reasons – ‘0’ was already used for the operator; 111 would be triggered by line-faults; 222 was an existing exchange. For anyone old enough to have used a real dial-phone to make a 999 call, the time it took seemed like eons.
Originally the system was just for calls made within a 12-mile radius of Oxford Circus , so naturally what is taken as the first 999 call was from a London number: Mrs Beard of Hampstead reported a burglary at about 4.20am on July 8 1937, her husband trying to apprehend the perpetrator: as a result of police action, Thomas Duffy, a 24-year-old criminal, was apprehended.
Glasgow was the next city to get the system in 1938; soon the entire country was using it, and 999 entered our national lexicon.
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