999: Saving lives for 80 years

On 30 June 2017 the 999 service celebrated its eightieth birthday. The oldest emergency telephone service in the world came about following a fire in a doctor’s surgery in 1935 in which five people perished. The subsequent enquiry proposed a way of prioritising emergency calls and the 999 service was born.

In the early days the service only covered a handful of cities with the majority of the UK having to wait until after the Second World War before being given access to this life-saving initiative. Nowadays the service answers some 30 million calls every year, with the peak being on New Year’s Eve when some 9,000 emergency calls are made every hour.

Apparently even in the early days hoax calls were a problem, with BT records including a complaint about bagpipes being played outside a house and a dispute involving the local coal man. Despite numerous campaigns, some 35% of all calls do not relate to emergencies; arising as hoax calls, automatic dials from mobiles in pockets or handbags, or children playing with handsets.

In a sign of the times 62% of all 999 calls come from mobile phones. As a result the emergency services have pioneered an advanced mobile location (AML) system which enables them to pinpoint the caller’s position. Integrated into the android operating system in the UK, AML has proved so successful that it is now being adopted by other countries.

When an emergency occurs, 999 may be the first port of call, but businesses also need to consider if there is anything that they need to do on an ongoing basis in order to maintain business as usual. This is where telephone systems can come into their own, acting as conduits for information or redirecting calls as appropriate.

Let’s start with call redirect. Whether through fire, flood, or any other reason; if people aren’t able to access the business premises then it is vital that calls are redirected so that the flow of business with suppliers or customers is not interrupted. Planning in advance to direct calls to mobiles or alternate numbers means that continuity can be maintained as far as possible. And if the business relies on telephony in order to deliver its services, then a hosted service can switch call routing at the touch of a button.

When there is a disaster, communication is key and this is where telephone systems can again make a measurable difference. Information lines can let staff and customers know what’s happening; with coded information lines delivering selective messages to key individuals depending on use of PIN codes. Bulk SMS messaging can also be deployed in order to deliver messages or briefings to appropriate individuals.

While we are looking at emergency solutions, let’s not forget the humble answerphone message. When you’re dealing with a problem now you may not want to answer calls, but answerphone messages enable communication lines to stay open and give you the option to return calls as quickly as practicable. Another option here is to use a virtual assistant service to take calls and provide basic information.

Telephony has transformed over the eighty years since the 999 emergency service was set up. In that time we’ve seen the advent of computers and broadband and a move towards an online interconnected world. But no matter what the changes, 999 has remained constant; directing emergency help to those who need it most.

Written by Alison