With the 80th anniversary of the 999 emergency services number, we've put together some interesting facts about the number, call handling today and what the future has in store.
This summer 999 celebrates its 80th birthday. Even at an elderly age, 999 isn't just collecting its pension but continuing to develop. We’ve put together some interesting facts about 999 that you probably didn’t know.
London Calling for a faraway crime
It was on 30th June 1937 that the new 999 emergency was launched in London, the world’s first emergency number.
Whilst telephone usage was limited, the idea was embraced by Londoners and 1,336 calls were made in its first week. Although this sounds like a lot, it’s still less than 0.2% of calls the Metropolitan Police responds to today.
The first 999 response arrest was exactly a week later on 7th July, whereby Thomas Duffy was arrested for an attempted break-in with intent to steal in Hampstead, North London. A call was made to police and it only took 5 minutes before local officers apprehended 24-year-old Duffy.
'999' is the magic number
The number ‘999’ is so ingrained into British culture that it’s strange to think it could have been anything else.
Back in the 1930s there was a debate around what the number should be and arguments were made for 0, 111, 222, or 333. 999 was eventually settled on due to the ease you could put the number into old telephones (ask your parents…).
Funnily enough, the idea for an emergency number was very much resisted against at first as it was thought people would be too embarrassed to phone in!
However, following the death of five people at a fire at a doctor’s surgery in London, a committee was established by the Government to look at how telephone operators could respond to emergencies.
Glasgow second in line
Glasgow was historically referred to as the ‘Second City of the British Empire’ in the Victorian Era (1830s to 1914) due to its high population and industrial contribution to the Empire. The importance of Glasgow was also recognised in 1938 when it became the second city in the UK to be introduced to the 999 service.
The outbreak of the Second World War meant that the spread of the number didn’t materialise as quickly as anticipated, and it was only after the conflict that it spread to Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham and other major UK cities.
Air Support responding to a call in Glasgow.
All major towns and cities were reached by 1948 and the entire UK was covered in 1976 when telephone exchanges were automated.
The first computerised call was recorded in 1984 with the report of a stray dog barking!
Emergency numbers around the world
If you’ve ever watched a Hollywood film you’ll know that the American number is 911, and the same applies for Canada. But what you might not know is that there’s a whole range of different emergency numbers around the globe.
112 is the emergency number in the European Union.
112 works as the emergency number across the European Union and a few other European Countries use it too whilst the number can also be used in the UK to reach the emergency services.
Numbers differ across the world and many countries even have 3 numbers for their emergency services. For example, Argentina uses 911 for Police, 107 for Ambulance and 100 for Fire.
Responding to calls today and in the future
Today, Police Scotland responds to more calls than it ever has done. We received over 3 million calls last year (2016) which led to 1.7 millions incidents being created.
Our C3 Division, or Contact, Command and Control Division - where all calls are handled and responded to - is nearing the end of a programme of change. This will see the creation of the Police Scotland Service Centre where all calls will be handled and a three area control room structure where incidents are managed and officers dispatched from. Calls will be answered by the first available call handler which means calls are answered quicker and waiting times reduced.
The non-emergency 101 number was introduced in Scotland in 2013 to reduce the pressure on 999, allowing the police to prioritise the most urgent calls and allow the public to report crime, receive advice or speak to a local officer.
What does the future have in store?
Within the next ten years, social media will grow, the vast majority of people will own a smart phone and artificial intelligence is expected to take off. Technology will change the way we live our lives and such advances will provide opportunities for preventing crime and improving operational effectiveness.
It's expected that technology will play a greater role in how we report crime and how crime is responded to. Watch this space but in the coming years Police Scotland will keep on top of the latest innovations to become more efficient.
For more information on the future of policing visit our Policing 2026 Strategy.