999 call system celebrates 80th anniversary

The 999 service was first set up on 30th June 1937, to give telephone operators a way of separating out emergency calls from routine police reports. It was brought in following a tragedy two years earlier when five women died in a house fire at a London surgery after neighbours could not get through to the operator to call the Brigade. In 2016, London Fire Brigade’s 999 control officers took 173,264 emergency calls.

London Fire Brigade’s Director of Operations Tom George said, “Our control officers are often unsung heroes but they are absolutely essential in emergencies, taking vital information, quickly mobilising firefighters and giving lifesaving advice. Our community safety advice has helped reduce the number of calls we receive but the 999 call system is as important as ever. Sadly in nearly half of fire deaths there was a delay in calling 999 so it just shows how important it is to not try and tackle a fire yourself but to call us immediately .”

How it works

When someone dials ‘999’, an operator will direct their call to the appropriate emergency service. All calls are received through an integrated control and communications system which records them.

A control operator establishes and electronically records the location of the incident, the incident type and any other information that may help crews when they arrive. The control operator will then mobilise the appropriate response.

It is possible to mobilise a response while still talking to the caller and this can be especially helpful if the caller is trapped by fire. The control operator can give fire survival guidance and also receive additional information that can be passed on to crews attending the incident.

The history of the 999 service

In 1937 the Post Office organised the new ‘999’ system and agreed to replace fire alarm posts with telephone boxes. The telephone had a system to allow people to call for the fire, police or ambulance services for free. The general public were reluctant to change to the new telephone system as there was a concern that the telephone may not always be in working order. Many people were also worried that the system would be much slower.

This is because the ‘999’ call went to the exchange and then the message had to be relayed to the nearest fire station. However with one central control room all fire engines could be mobilised from one location making operations much easier to coordinate.

In 1948 therefore a new control room was opened at the London Fire Brigade headquarters at Lambeth where all ‘999’ calls were received and this was also the location where fire stations could be mobilised. The current LFB control centre is in Merton.

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