Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

Story Vault

By Audrey Fraizer

Editor’s Note: The following article is compiled from several U.K. news sources.

Scotswoman Alexandrina Lamont made history, although in a most tragic way for a 22-year-old woman trying to start a new life in London.

The date was Nov. 10, 1935, and Lamont was maybe scrubbing floors, dusting, or sweeping when fire broke out at the home of London Aural Surgeon Philip Franklin, M.D. No doubt the housemaid was desperate to escape the burning home of her employer along with Dr. Franklin’s wife, niece, cook, and kitchen maid.

A neighbor, seeing the smoke, placed a call but never made it through the lengthy queue of calls waiting for the operator’s assistance. Just like everybody else taught to dial “0” in an emergency, she waited her turn in the Metropolitan Police emergency queue. By the time the fire brigade arrived, it was too late. The five women had perished.

The tragedy forced the hand of emergency services. Dialing “O” and asking for police, fire, or ambulance had been the recommended method since 1927. If a passerby noted an emergency outside of the home, public kiosks equipped with “emergency call” buttons to push were available; no money was necessary to secure the connection. The caller could also ask the operator for Whitehall 1212— the Information room set up in 1934 at the Metropolitan Police’s headquarters at Victoria Embankment. Messages from calls received were transmitted via radio waves to police vehicles.1

The trouble, however, was the number of people unaccustomed to using a phone— a relatively new invention at the time—and, instead, rushing on foot or motorcar to the nearest police station during an emergency. Neither system—dialing “O” or Whitehall 1212—offered a method for identifying and prioritizing calls.

The Belgrave Committee solved the problem by deciding on a three-digit number system to request assistance in an emergency. The number would be unique to emergency calls, provide an automatic connection, and the three digits would be easy to dial even when thick smoke or darkness made seeing and spinning the phone dial difficult. After considerable debate, the committee chose the number 9-9-9.

Two years after the fire, on June 30, 1937, London became the first city to offer a direct three-digit number emergency phone service when it introduced the number 9-9-9 to 91 automatic telephone exchanges in London.2 Described as the telephone users’ S.O.S., a notice published in the London Evening News provided cursory instructions:

“Only dial 999 if the matter is urgent; 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. If the matter is less urgent, if you have merely lost little Towser or a lorry has come to rest in your front garden, just call up the local police.”3

A phone ad introduced at the same time showed how to dial a telephone, in general, with a postscript for the free emergency line:

  1. Before commencing to dial, lift receiver and wait for dialing tone (a purring sound)

  2. Insert finger in hole showing first letter of name of exchange required

  3. Turn dial to finger-stop

  4. Lift finger. Dial will then return to normal position

The 9-9-9 call would go to a telephone exchange where an alarm would sound and a warning light would flash alerting the operator to the emergency call. Once asked “Emergency— which service, please?” the caller was put through to fire, police, or ambulance depending on his or her response.

The system started small, covering a 12-mile radius around London’s Oxford Circus. Since few households had telephones, telephone boxes in the area were modified to take the 9-9-9 calls without charge.

The first call resulting in an arrest occurred on July 7, 1937, from the private phone of a wealthy North Londoner who had scared off a stranger in the midst of breaking into his home. In less then five minutes, after his wife called 9-9-9, the would-be infamous for a bad decision cat burglar— 24-year-old Thomas Duffys—was in custody and later charged with an attempted break-in with intent to steal.4

Like any new system, however, there were kinks to work out. For example, in the early days, 9-9-9 calls to Scotland Yard triggered such a loud buzzer alarm that the switchboard girls had to be carried out after fainting at their desks from the deafening racket. The problem was only solved when ingenious engineers stuffed tennis balls into the mouth of the klaxons to muffle the noise. Five pranksters were determinedly behind 91 “curiosity calls” out of the 1,336 calls placed to 9-9-9 the first week of service.

In 1938, the system was introduced to Glasgow but World War II delayed further expansion. The program later continued and was introduced in Wales, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, and Manchester in 1946.

By 1967, more than a million calls were being made for all emergency services across the U.K., a number that has grown to 31 million calls (an average of 597,000 calls a week) placed annually from fixed and mobile phones across the U.K. Of the calls British Telecom (BT) passes to emergency services, 52% go to the police, 41% to the ambulance service, 6% to the fire and rescue service, and 1% to the coastguard and cave and mountain rescue services. The early hours of New Year’s Day is traditionally the busiest time when up to 13,500 calls can be received each hour.5

In May 1993, the British Medical Journal recommended that the London Ambulance Service implement “a medical priority dispatch system, which differs from criteria-based dispatch systems by using algorithms rather than prompts.”6 Today, the Advanced Medical Priority Dispatch System (AMPDS) is currently used by more than 90% of the National Health Service (NHS) ambulance services in the United Kingdom.

Party time

To celebrate the 75th anniversary, Scotland Yard opened its archive to reveal early emergency calls. Logs from 9-9-9 read:

A man aged 40, 5 ft or 6 ft, square jaw, brown suit, grey collar and a light brown trilby, smart appearance, at 3.45 pm entered a house on Kenvin Drive, Cricklewood, and gagged the occupier, stole £6 and decamped.

On the same day, two suspicious moustachioed men wearing trilbys were spotted hanging around the scene of a jewellery store shortly after it had been raided by a robber who made off with a bar of gold and a bundle of cash. 7

A Facebook page set up by the Metropolitan Police features video interviews with 9-9-9 operators, photos, illustrations, and facts and figures relating to the history of the service.


1 Holland, Gary. “Why 999 for an emergency?” BBC London. 2010; May 13. http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/london/hi/ people_and_places/history/newsid_8675000/8675199.stm (accessed Sept. 14, 2012).

2 “999 celebrates its 75th year.” BT Press Release DC12-195. 2012; June 29. http://www.btplc.com/News/Articles/ Showarticle.cfm?ArticleID=CAC15E81-D4CE-4148-AC21- 8B57031F0A0A (accessed Sept. 14, 2012).

3 Moore, Keith. “Dial 999: 75 years of emergency phone calls.” BBC News. 2012; June 29. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/ magazine-18520121 (accessed Sept. 12, 2012)

4 See note 3.

5 See note 2.

6 Clawson, JJ. “Protocols vs. Guidelines—Choosing a Medical Dispatch Program.” Emergency Medical Services. 1994: October. http://www.emergencydispatch.org/articles/protocolsvsguidelines1. htm (accessed Sept. 14, 2012).

7 Camber, Rebecca. “The first ever 999 calls: Police release logs for 75th anniversary of the emergency phone number’s introduction.” Ghan Nation. 2012: June 28. http:// news1.ghananation.com/international/263244 (accessed Sept. 14, 2012).