Happy birthday to a lifesaver - 999 service is 75 today

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BT’s 999 emergency service – which handles more than four million calls a year across South East – celebrates its 75th anniversary today

The world’s first emergency call service was launched following the tragic deaths of five women in a fire. More than 1,000 calls were made during the first week of the service in 1937, compared with a weekly average today of 597,000 across the UK and 80,000 in the South East.

BT operators now answer within five seconds 98 per cent of the 31 million UK calls received annually.

John Weaver, BT’s regional director for South East, said: “Today, the 999 service is known for its reliability and professionalism. It’s not only the world’s oldest emergency call service having clocked up 75 years of experience in providing the UK with a communications lifeline in times of need, it’s also one of the world’s most respected and admired services.

“Many people in South East owe their lives to smooth and effective emergency call handling by BT operators, using the latest technologies to ensure that emergency calls are dealt with swiftly and efficiently. When lives are at stake it’s vital that no time is lost.

“Our 999 operators are the first port of call for people seeking help and we’re very proud of the part they have played in this essential service for the past seven and a half decades.”

Meanwhile, BT is continuing to invest in the service – £10 million is currently being spent on renewing call-handling equipment. New operators undergo a nine-week training programme and all operators are given ‘refresher training’ every month.

Around half of the 80,000-plus calls received daily by BT operators in the UK do not involve requests for help. Most are made by children playing or customers accidentally dialling 999 or the European emergency number 112 from a mobile handset in a pocket or handbag. All have to be carefully managed by BT and the police to ensure genuine calls are dealt with effectively.

Speed and accuracy of information are vital in the handling of an emergency call. As the call is received details of the caller’s address and phone number flash immediately on the screen of the BT operator, who will swiftly confirm that the call is bona fide, which emergency service is required and then transfer the call to the appropriate service.

When BT operators pass calls to the emergency services, 52 per cent go to the police, 41 per cent to the ambulance service, six per cent to the fire and rescue service and one per cent to the coastguard and cave and mountain rescue services.