Whilst ‘attempted entry’ may seem a relatively low-key offence, failed burglar Thomas Duffy’s place in the annals of crime is assured. Spotted trying to break into a house in Hampstead during the early hours of 7th July 1937, the 24-year-old labourer was arrested as a result of the UK’s first ever 999 call.

Housebreaker foiled by telephone call

Mr. Stanley Beard of Elsworthy Road, Hampstead, heard a noise outside his house at 4.20 am and, on looking out, saw a man’s foot.His wife immediately dialled the new emergency number 999 and asked for the police. Seconds later, radio patrol cars raced to the spot. Four minutes later a man was detained by police near Primrose Hill. Later in the day, Thomas Duffy (24) a labourer, was charged at Marylebone poIice court with attempting to break in to the house, and was remanded in custody.

Today, 60 years later, 999 operators handle approaching half-a-million calls a week, connecting members of the public to the appropriate emergency service — fire, police, ambulance or coastguard — in a matter of seconds. In providing this service, BT helps to save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives every year.

The 999 service was first introduced experimentally in London, partially as a result of the deaths of five people in a serious fire in Wimpole Street. At the time, calls to emergency services were given no greater priority than any other call— the operator had no way of knowing ‘whether a call was urgent until it was answered.

One witness to the fire was still trying to get through as the fire engines arrived. In the event the switchboard had been jammed with other neighbours trying to get through but it nevertheless highlighted the problem and, as a result, a parliamentary committee was set up to design an emergency service system.

First preference for an easy-to-remember number was 111 but this was rejected because of the likelihood of false calls being triggered accidentally. This, together with technical issues relating to the need to modify dials at public telephones, led to the decision to go with 999.

Implementing the service was a major task. Every subscriber had to be informed of the service, the labels on their telephones had to be changed and special alert systems were installed at operator centres.

When a 999 call was made, a lamp would light up at the special operating position, a large red light on top of the position would glow and a klaxon would sound. There was no danger whatsoever of an operator missing an emergency call!

Once the service had been rolled out in London, Glasgow was next on the list. The war then intervened, but by 1948, all large towns and cities served by automatic exchanges had the 999 service. In the ensuing years, every telephone in the country was given access to the system.

Despite the major change and innovation witnessed over the last 60 years, the reassuring and confident human voice that greeted the caller all those years ago remains the core of the service.

The number is known by virtually every member o the British public. It is a recognised and trusted source of help whether the call relates to a major disaster, a suspected incident or a child stuck in railings.

So, what does the future hold for 999? Developments in technology have enabled the address of the caller to be displayed on screen —saving valuable seconds that would previously have been spent requesting and keying in details. Although taken for granted these days, this is very much state-of-the-art technology.

[Information supplied by BT]

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