Saturday, 1 July marked the 80th anniversary of the 999 call being introduced in London.
From its early days at Scotland Yard when a handful of police officers transmitted by Morse code to wireless cars, to today’s three high-tech centralised communications complexes (CCC) in Bow, Hendon and Lambeth – much has changed since 1937.
Eighty years ago, the first ever emergency number system anywhere in the world came into being in London with the introduction of the 999 call – marking an unprecedented change in the way the public communicated with the Metropolitan Police.
In July 2016, MetCC launched its live twitter feed from one of the three central communications complexes where first contact operators were answering tens of thousands of emergency calls every week. This twitter feed is @MetCC and has had more than 350,800 posts submitted since its launch, 7,600 of which have required a response from police. The Met has posted 8.4 million tweets/broadcasts since the feed began.
For twelve hours on Friday, 29 June, the public were able to get an understanding into the huge variety of calls operators deal with on a daily basis and gain insight into the pressures faced by staff as they have to make minute by minute decisions in the most difficult of circumstances.
In other events to mark the anniversary, a special commemorative section was set up on the Met’s Facebook page featuring video interviews with 999 operators, a wide range of photos, illustrations and facts and figures relating to the history of the service.
The feed included photos relating to emergency communication that chart the significant developments in the service between 1937, when a handful of officers used counters on large table maps to denote police cars and messages were transmitted by Morse code, and the present day’s sophisticated high-tech command centres.
In the early days of the 1930s just 24 staff in the old Victoria Embankment headquarters of Scotland Yard dealt with a couple of hundred calls a day. Contrast this with 2017, when we have three centralised communications complexes in Bow, Hendon and Lambeth, employing over 2,000 people dealing with 13,000 – 20,000 calls per day.
The system has been upgraded and redesigned numerous times over the decades, leading to the sophisticated multi-screen automated service in use today that prioritises 999 calls using interactive satellite mapping as well as access to translators in 170 languages and special text phone numbers for the deaf.
Chief Superintendent David Jackson, head of MetCC, said: “The 999 system is the cornerstone not only of British policing but also for our emergency service partners. The level of accessibility that it provides allows emergency services to save lives and protect the public. Our dedicated staff operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year ensuring that police can be despatched quickly to incidents where the public need us.
“Being there 24/7 and ensuring that officers are despatched quickly to emergency and priority incidents is a critical function for the police. The progress since 1937 has been enormous – and we will keep striving to improve the service over the next 80 years.”
The police have always made use of new technology to help them fight crime – the first case of a criminal being arrested through use of telegrams was recorded in 1845, while in 1910 the notorious murderer Dr Crippen was famously caught after telegrams between London, Canada and a ship in the Atlantic were sent.
In the years after the introduction of wireless in cars in 1922, it was felt a control centre was needed to direct these ‘eyes and ears’ and feed them with information, but it was not until 12 years later in 1934 that the first ‘Information Room’ [IR] was set up at Scotland Yard’s old headquarters in Victoria Embankment. The Met wanted all calls routed to the Information Room because local police stations often only had a single line which would be engaged when an emergency call was being made. The public could ring the operator and ask for the Scotland Yard switchboard – the ‘Whitehall 1212’ number famous from many old films – and then be connected straight through to the IR.
The government had been advising the public since 1927 to dial 0 and ask the operator for police, fire, ambulance which ensured that interrupted calls could be traced.
But the impetus for a new, dedicated emergency number came from a tragic event in 1935 when five women lost their lives in a fire at a Wimpole Street doctor’s house.
Neighbours dialling 0 to alert the operator to the blaze found it jammed – at that time the automatic exchanges had no way to distinguish between ‘life or death’ calls and all the others coming into their switchboards – highlighting the need for urgent reform of the system.
A Parliamentary Committee inquiry followed, and recommended a universal number easily memorised by public and instantly recognisable to telephone operators at the General Post Office, which ran the exchange network. The GPO carried out various experiments and suggested a three digit number at the end of the dialler so it could be found easily by touch in thick smoke or the dark that could trigger a special signal and flashing light at the exchange.
111 was rejected because it could be triggered by faulty equipment or telegraph wires rubbing together in the wind, transmitting the equivalent of a 111 call. 222 would have connected to the Abbey local telephone exchange as numbers in the early telephone network represented the first three letters – and 000 could not be used as the first 0 would have dialled the operator.
Once 999 was settled on, public phone boxes were converted to take the calls without charge, and at switchboard exchanges a series of red lights and back-up buzzers were installed to alert operators of incoming emergency calls. In the first few days some switchboard girls were so distressed at the foghorn-like noise made by the buzzers they were carried out fainting while residents near the exchanges complained their peace was being disturbed.
After discovering a tennis ball stuffed into the mouths of the buzzers muffled the noise to an appropriate extent, the GPO issued urgent instructions to all its local engineers to go out and buy tennis balls to fit to all the new buzzers! Later on, adjustable covers were introduced to regulate the noise.
Adverts were taken out in newspapers giving the public examples of ‘urgent’ situations that constituted an emergency: “Call 999 if for instance the man in the flat next to yours is murdering his wife, or you have seen a heavily masked cat burglar feeling round the local bank building. If you have lost little ‘Towser’, or a lorry has come to rest in your front garden, just call up the local police.”
The influx to the IR at Scotland Yard was immediate – 1,336 calls in the first week alone, soon rising to an average of 8,000 calls a month. Several people have claimed to have made the first 999 call in early July, including a Mrs Stanley Beard of Hampstead, who reported a burglar her husband was chasing that police promptly arrested and who appeared at Marylebone Police Court within hours.
For technical reasons it took five months before all the calls were being routed correctly through to the IR, where eight Wireless Telegraphy Operators and 16 telephonists worked shifts under the command of an Inspector. They were paid extra wages (5 and 3 shillings each, respectively) in acknowledgement of their “special qualifications, technical skill and the tacit and discretion.”
Four large tables covered by maps represented the four districts of the 12-mile radius from Oxford Circus the system covered. Messages were recorded in triplicate, and one copy handed to the wireless operator to transmit to one of the fleet of Wolseley 18/85s area cars the force favoured at the time.
At first unmarked cars were used which were fitted with a special flap at the back which could retract to display the sign ‘Met Police’ once officers were embarked on chasing villains. A typical 1930s log book from one of these ‘q’ cars – a term still used today in the force – records in perfect copper-plate handwriting reports hunts for moustachioed man in trilby hats with frequent intervals for ‘refreshment breaks’.
As the 1940s progressed and the force experimented with the newer technology available Morse code transmission was replaced by the first two wave radio system after the Second World War. The fifties and sixties saw the IR room fitted out with a new manual conveyor belt system between the banks of telephone points that physically moved messages around the office to the dispatchers who sat at a desk at the end of the room.
By the time Scotland Yard moved to its former home on Broadway, SW1 in 1967, a more advanced conveyor belt system was introduced allowing officers to be sent out to calls more quickly than ever.
The IR received its first emergency call from a mobile phone in 1986, and in October, 1998, a sophisticated information service designed by BT was launched. This allowed details of both the calling number and the address from which a 999 call had been made to be transferred automatically to the emergency authority operator’s screen – paving the way for the interactive mapping systems of the modern CCCs.
Three high-tech centres based in Lambeth, Bow and Hendon were opened in 2004 leading to hundreds of staff who had been handling emergency calls from their local police stations for decades adapting to a new way of working.
When 999 calls are received they go automatically onto a stacking system and are answered on the first contact floor at MetCCs. Once the operator speaks to the caller, they grade the call. They create a written report or ‘CAD’, (Computer Aided Dispatch) and alert staff on the ‘dispatch’ floor who in turn assign officers to the scene.
The Met is currently in the process of recruiting additional call handlers. All new recruits to MetCC must prove themselves taking calls on the first contact floor, before they can apply to undertake additional training to work on dispatch. The skill set for ‘Dispatch’ is based on multi-tasking; the dispatcher has information flowing toward them from call handlers who are updating the incident on the system while they are speaking with officers via the radio directing them to the scene. It is incredibly fast paced and requires a high level of focus and control.
To increase the police contact options available to the public, non-serious crime can now be reported online via the Met’s website, and the number of communications using this method is increasing all the time.
In the 12 months to end May 2017 the Met received just under five million calls, around two million of these were to the 999 emergency number and around three million were made to the non-emergency 101 number.
For the 12 months to May 2017 85.1 per cent of “I graded” calls were responded to within 15 minutes.
Despite the constant challenges the 999 system has faced over the past 80 years in adapting to a world that has changed beyond all recognition, one constant is the personal qualities that a good call handler should possess.
In 1956, it was said of Information Room staff: “they must possess exceptional qualities of tact and forbearance and be prepared to accept responsibilities beyond the norm” – character attributes just as relevant to the modern day 999 call operators clicking between interactive computer screens as their predecessors 80 years ago moving counters around on a table map.
Chief Superintendent Jackson added: “Eighty years is a significant milestone of the emergency service provision. From the early days of Morse code to the modern, computerised systems of today, the one constant has been the quality of the officers and staff who work in this area of policing. The work is demanding, requiring a calm and collected analytical approach to the five million calls a year we now take. The work is exciting and no two shifts are ever the same and I’m hugely proud of the colleagues I represent who answer emergency and non-emergency calls from the public and dispatch our officers and staff to those incidents where the police are needed.”
FACTS AND FIGURES:
TIMELINE: A century of communication
1906 – Commissioner Sir Edward Henry fights the roll-out of telephones in police stations on the grounds that it “would make us too accessible to the public thus distracting us from our work.” First phone introduced 1901 in Scotland Yard.
1934 – Yard’s first ‘Information Room’ (IR) opens in old HQ in Victoria Embankment, using the famous ‘Whitehall 1212’ number referred to in many films of the era. Messages transmitted to unmarked ‘area’ cars on patrol via Morse code.
1 July, 1937 – 999 number first introduced, replacing 1212, following a fire which killed five women in Wimpole St. It was recognised that a dedicated universal emergency number was urgently needed to enable telephone operators to prioritise between incoming calls.
Post 1945 – Met’s fleet of response cars fitted with radio allowing two way speech transmissions.
1956 – IR moved to first floor of Scotland Yard and a conveyer belt system was introduced to speed up despatch of police cars onto the street to incidents.
1965 – Officers equipped with personal radios for the first time.
1967 – A more advanced belt method of transfer was introduced when a new IR opened in the NSY building at the Broadway, St James Park.
1984 – Modern-day version of Central Communications Complex (CCC) system put into use, 999 calls received via an Automatic Call Distribution computerised telephone system and entered by operators onto VDU screens. At the time was biggest in the world involving over 900 terminals.
1986 – ‘Graded’ system of classifying calls comes into use pan-London to provide a framework for public to be given most appropriate response. Immediate (I) delayed (D) extended (E) and referred (R). Today same four categories used, except ‘D’ is now ’S’ for significant.
1994 – Multi-million pound contract for new ‘trunked’ radio system to tackle poor reception black spots and congested public order communication channels. Emergency buttons fitted to each radio for officers – making life harder for scanners listening in illegally to police frequencies.
2004 – First centralised 999 call handling centre opens in Lambeth in the autumn. Bow and Hendon follow in early 2005.
July, 2011 – 101 national non-emergency number introduced to ease pressure on 999 and improve access to police for the public, and help tackle crime and disorder.
April 2012 – the target response times for ‘I’ emergency calls changed for officers to arrive at 90 per cent within 15 minutes, instead of 75 per cent within 12 minutes.
May 2012 – New directive requires every single victim of crime who contacts the Met to be offered a home visit from an officer regardless of the nature of the offence.
June 2012 – Figures show the Met’s CCC centres are handling an average of five million calls a year (approximate split two million 999 calls; three million non-emergency 101 calls).
STATISTICS: THEN AND NOW:
1934 – 8 Wireless Telegraphy Operators and 16 telephonists
1956 – 61 constables
2012 – 2,246 (574 police officers, 1,672 police staff between the three CCC centres.
2017 – MetCC currently employs 1550 staff across all three MetCC locations. The workforce target is 1715 officers and staff. A recruitment process is in progress.
NUMBERS OF CALLS:
Daily averages: (combined total for 999 and 101 numbers)
1937 = 285
1956 = 430
1964 = 640
1987 = 2,400
1992 = 4,000
2012 – 14,000
2013 – 12,557
2014 – 12,725
2015 – 12,526
2016 – 13,377
January – May 2017 – 13,314
DID YOU KNOW?
- The very first Live ‘CAD’ (Computer Aided Dispatch) incident at 10.02hrs on 24 July 1984 related to a stray dog barking in Barking.
Interpreters are available in 170 languages for a three-way conversation between the caller, police operator and a qualified interpreter. Every month we use Language Line approx. 1,400 times. The most popular languages are: Polish, Romanian, Punjabi, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, Somali, French, Tamil and Bengali.
Callers who are deaf or have a hearing or speech impairment can use a textphone to call: 18001 101; or in an emergency it’s 18000.
Abandoned calls which not classified as nuisance calls take up time as the majority have to be called back to ensure emergency services not required.
– The Met received 20,235 hoax calls during 2016, this averages 1,686 calls per month where officers are deployed to locations to respond to incidents that have not taken place. Hoax calls divert police resources away from incidents where they may be needed to preserve life.