999 celebrates its 75th anniversary

An officer in the Map Room identifying an available car after taking a 999 call.
An officer in the Map Room identifying an available car after taking a 999 call. Photo: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

The most senior police officer in the UK today met 999 call handlers on a visit to mark 75 years since the service was launched.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said telephone calls remain the "bedrock" of how the public contact police, despite the availability of social media.

He visited trainers and new recruits taking their first live calls at a centre in Lambeth, south London.

The Telegraph office in the 1970s.
The Telegraph office in the 1970s. Credit: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

He said: "We think that a telephone call is the best way to get emergency help and for us to question the caller about what's happened. In any conversation we can quickly communicate, so the telephone call will remain the bedrock of the way people get an emergency service."

Staff face a possible surge in demand during the Olympics, will see their shift patterns change and have to work overtime, Mr Hogan-Howe said.

The 999 service was first set up on July 1, 1937, to give telephone operators a way of separating out emergency calls.

A radio dispatcher sending out messages in Morse Code to vehicles from the Information Room in the 1930s.
A radio dispatcher sending out messages in Morse Code to vehicles from the Information Room in the 1930s. Credit: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

The scheme was sparked by a tragedy two years earlier when five women died in a house fire after neighbours could not get through to the operator to call the fire brigade.

999 was the first emergency call service of its kind in the world.

Staff began taking 285 calls per day in 1937, and now more than 2,000 staff deal with 14,000 calls on average.

Officers in an early wireless car, receiving a Morse Code message from the Information Room.
Officers in an early wireless car, receiving a Morse Code message from the Information Room. Credit: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

Mr Hogan-Howe said: "My mum had to walk to the telephone box at the end of the street to get help, and often when she got there it had been vandalised.

"Ten per cent of people used to have a landline in their house, now it's 99% and everybody has a mobile phone. The volume of calls has just gone through the roof."

PC Michael Teague (right) meeting Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to New Scotland Yard.
PC Michael Teague (right) meeting Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to New Scotland Yard. Credit: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

Of these, only a fifth to a quarter turn out to be genuine emergencies, and there are around 7,000 hoax calls per year.

The highest ever number of daily calls received were on August 8 and 9 last year during riots, when around 20,000 calls were made on each day.