First 999 Call

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First 999 Call

Hampstead, London The 8th of July 1937 AD

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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