Today is the 75th Anniversary of the Start of Fire, Police and Ambulance Emergency Number

In Australia it is triple zero in New Zealand 111, in the United Kingdom and many of its former colonies it is 999 and the whole world knows that in the United States (and Canada) it is 911.

How it all started

This simple but important change to how emergency services are contacted came from an idea from the actions of someone frustrated with the current way of doing things. In the case of the emergency number, it is said to have been invented following a major fire which occurred on November 10, 1935 in a house on Wimpole Street in which five women tragically perished.

A neighbour, who had tried to telephone the London Fire Brigade, was so outraged at being put on hold by the Welbeck telephone exchange that he wrote a letter to the editor of The Times which prompted a government inquiry.

The outcome of this inquiry was that an emergency number was introduced for the first time in the London area on June 30, 1937; 75 years ago today.

The format chosen in the United Kingdom was the 9-9-9 format was chosen based on the ‘Button A’ and ‘Button B’ design of pre-payment coin-operated public phones, which by 1937 were widely used across London.

Using this button system allowed a modification so as a 9-digit rotary dial in addition to the 0 digit, which was used to call an operator could be developed so as people could ring the emergency service centre but would not have free use of numbers involving other digits. Over time, other combinations of 9 and 0 were used for other purposes, ultimately doing away with the operator completely.

The choice of 999 in the United Kingdom was because in the dark or in dense smoke, 999 could be dialled by placing a finger against the dial stop and rotating the dial to the full extent three times. This enabled all users including the visually impaired to easily dial the emergency number. It was also felt that if 111 or other low-number sequences were to have been used, then they could be dialled accidentally, including when transmission wires making momentary contact and produce a pulse similar to dialling say when overhead cables touch in high winds.

Australia

Source: Country Fire Service South Australia

Australia did not have a national number for emergency services until 1980s. Up until 1961, the police, fire and ambulance services had a separate and different phone number for each local unit. In 1961, the office of the Post Master General  (“PMG”), the forerunner of Telstra and Australia Post, introduced the Triple Zero (000) number in major cities and towns and near the end of the 1980s extended this service Australia- wide. Why it took so long is a complete mystery to me and perhaps explains why it took so long to get rid of fire service levies until in Victoria, like the UK, it took a major event to get people to think.
The number Triple Zero (000) was chosen for several reasons. First up, the 0 in the rotary phones of that era was closest to the stop, and, following the lead from the United Kingdom, it was felt that this was the easiest to use in the dark or in a room full of smoke. A good friend of mine is a boffin engineer at Telstra and he explained as he fixed my vintage bakelite phone that technically, it suited the dialling system for the most remote automatic exchanges, particularly outback Queensland. These communities used the digit zero to select an automatic trunk line to a centre. In the most remote communities, two zeros had to be used to reach a main centre; thus dialling zero, zero plus another zero would call, as a minimum, an operator.

Interestingly, the popular 911 number was considered as the emergency number in Australia but the pre-existing numbering arrangements make this unfeasible as homes and businesses had already been assigned numbers beginning with 911.

New Zealand

The introduction of an emergency number started much earlier in New Zealand than in Australia. As with the United Kingdom it was introduced following a major fire. On this occasion it was the Ballantynes fire in Christchurch. Following this terrible fire, an experienced Fire Brigade Officer Arthur Varley was recruited from the United Kingdom to reform the New Zealand Fire Service.

Mr Varley was naturally familiar with the UK’s 9-9-9 number and he campaigned hard for a universal emergency telephone number across New Zealand.

It took until 1957 before a committee was set up to institute a common emergency number across the country. Members of the committee were drawn from the then Post and Telegraph Department, Police, Fire Brigade and Health Department. Following the recommendation of this committee, the Post Master General approved the service using the number 111.

1-1-1 was specifically chosen to comply with the positioning of London’s 9-9-9. With pulse dialling, New Zealand telephones pulse in reverse to the UK – dialling 0 sent ten pulses, 1 sent nine, 2 sent eight, 3 sent seven, etc.. In the early years of 111, the telephone equipment was based on British Post Office equipment, except for this unusual orientation. Why on earth do we not standardise these things from the very start? If it is not railway gauges, it is something else.

In any event, dialling 111 on a New Zealand telephone sent three sets of nine pulses to the exchange, exactly the same as UK’s 999.

The telephone exchange in Masterton, near the capital of Wellington, was replaced in 1956, and was the first exchange to have the technology installed for the 111 service. As a result, Masterton and nearby Carterton were the first towns in New Zealand to get the new standard emergency phone number.

North America

It was the Canadians in 1959, that first chose to use a central emergency number in North America. This came about due to Mayor Stephen Juba  of Winnipeg. Winnipeg initially used 999 as the emergency number following the lead from the United Kingdom, but switched numbers when 9-1-1 was proposed by the United States.

In the United States, the push for the development of a nationwide American emergency telephone number came in 1957 when the National Association of Fire Chiefs called for a single number be used for reporting fires.

In 1967, the President’s Committee on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice recommended the creation of a single number that could be used nationwide for reporting all emergencies, not just fires.

The task of implementing the system fell to the Federal Communications Commission, which then met with the primary carrier AT&T in November, 1967 to solve the problem.

The following year, 1968, saw the solution being agreed. AT&T  agreed to implement the concept, but with its unique emergency number, 9-1-1, which was brief, easy to remember, easy to dial and worked well with their phone systems.

Conclusion

It usually in a time of stress that we need to dial the emergency number. Thank goodness that the simple idea was developed to streamline the process. Hopefully with improvements in technology where the operator will be able to see on a screen exactly where the person phoning is located that even more precious time can be saved which will in turn result in more lives and property saved.

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