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999 is the official emergency telephone number in a number of countries including the United Kingdom, Poland, the Republic of Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, Macao, Bahrain and Qatar. A number of Commonwealth countries and former British colonies including Bangladesh, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and Trinidad and Tobago also use 999.



United Kingdom

  • 999 can be used to summon assistance from the three main emergency services, Police, Fire and Rescue and Ambulance, or more specialist services such as HM Coastguard. Calls to the 999 service are free. Calls from the European Union standard emergency number 112 are automatically routed to 999 operators.
  • Introduced first in the London area in 1937, the UK 999 number is the world's oldest emergency call service. The 9-9-9 format was chosen based on the Button A and Button B design of pre-payment coin operated public payphones in wide use, (first introduced in 1925), which could be easily modified to allow free use of the 9 digit on the rotary dial, without allowing free use of any other number combination.
  • With the introduction of mobile telephones, accidental or "silent" 999 calls have become an increasing problem. Hoax and improper use of the 999 system are also an issue for the service. For these reasons, there are frequent public information campaigns in the UK on the correct use of the 999 system. A 101 non-emergency number is currently being trialled in certain areas of the UK.[1]

Procedures in the United Kingdom

A common emergency call

999 is used to contact the emergency services upon witnessing or being involved in an emergency. In the United Kingdom, the numbers 999 and 112 both correspond to the same line, and there is no priority or charge for either of them.

An emergency can be:

  • A person in immediate danger of injury or their life is at risk
  • Suspicion that a crime is in progress
  • Another serious incident which needs immediate emergency service attendance

On dialling 999 an operator will come onto the line and ask "Emergency. Which service?". Previously operators asked "Which service do you require?" (approximately up to the mid-90s). If the caller is unsure as to which service they require, the operator will default the call to the Police, and if an incident requires more than one service, for instance a Road Traffic Collision with injuries and trapped persons, depending on the service the caller has chosen, the service will alert the other services for the caller (while the BT/C&W/etc Operator has to also contact each emergency service individually, regardless of whether the caller has remained on the line). The caller will be connected to the service which covers the area that they are (or appear to be) calling from.

On 6 October 1998, BT introduced a new system whereby all the information about the location of the calling telephone was transmitted electronically to the relevant service rather than having to read it out (with the possibility of errors). This system is called EISEC (Enhanced Information Service for Emergency Calls). Previously, the operator had to start the connection to the emergency service control room by stating the location of the operator, followed by the caller’s telephone number, i.e. "Bangor connecting 01248 300 000". It was common for the person calling to be confused as to why the operator was talking to the Emergency service, and the caller frequently talked over the operator. Only around 50% of the EAs (Emergency Authorities) have EISEC, although the number is ever increasing, so, in those cases without EISEC present, the Operator still has to pass their location and the caller's number.

The rooms in which operators work are called OACs - "Operator assistance centre". In Wales they are located in Newport and Bangor. 999/112 calls from Mobile phones are usually answered in an OAC in Inverness, Scotland or Blackburn.


It is important for the caller to be aware of their location when phoning for the emergency services, the caller's location will not be passed onto the emergency services immediately, and finding the location will be a combination of efforts on both parties. However it is possible to trace both landline and mobile telephone numbers with the BT operator; the former can be traced to an address. The latter can be immediately traced to a grid reference according to the transmitter being used, however this is only accurate to a certain wide area, for more specific traces senior authority must be acquired and an expensive operation can be conducted to trace the mobile phone within a few metres.

In some occasions callers will be put through to the wrong area service, this is called a “misrouted 9”. The most common reason for this is when a mobile phone calls 999 and is using a radio transmitter that is located in another force; most frequently these are calls that are made within a few miles of a border. Upon establishing the incident location, the emergency services call taker will relay the information to the responsible force for their dispatch. In most areas, other forces will respond to incidents just within the border if they could get there quicker, assist, and then hand over to the other force when they arrive.

Abandoned and hoax calls

An abandoned call is when a caller, intentionally or otherwise, rings 999 and then disconnects or stays silent, this could be for any number of reasons. Abandoned calls are filtered by BT operators and are either disconnected or put through to the police.

The most common reasons for abandoned calls include:

  • Accidental calling by dialling 999 on mobile phones, even with the keypad locked. All GSM mobile phones have a feature of still allowing emergency calls to be dialled even with a keypad lock on.
  • Faulty lines.

Hoax calls are a problem for emergency services. Tied up lines and vehicles can disrupt critical service.

999 services

In the UK 999 is an all-service number, in that it should be called in any situations where state-run emergency services are needed. The three main services are the police, fire and rescue and ambulance. Other available services include coastguard, mountain rescue and cave rescue, where locally relevant. In some situations there will be specific instructions on nearby signs to notify some other authority of an emergency before calling 999. For example, there are notices on bridges carrying railways over roads informing that, if there is a road vehicle striking the bridge, the railway authority (on a given number) should be called first and only then 999 to inform the police.

In the UK, the number is operated by BT, Cable & Wireless and Global Crossing. These organizations forward calls to the appropriate emergency service for the location and incident; all calls to the number are made free of charge. The operation of 999 is coordinated by the 999 liaison committee.


The 999 service was introduced on 30 June 1937 in the London area, and later nationally. The system is said to have been introduced following a fire on 10 November 1935 in a house on Wimpole Street, in which five women were killed.[2] Norman Macdonald, a neighbour, had tried to telephone the fire brigade and was so outraged at being held in a queue by the telephone exchange that he wrote a letter to the editor of The Times,[3] which prompted a government inquiry.[2]

The number 999 was chosen because of the need for the code to be able to be dialled from A/B button public telephones. The telephone dial (GPO Dial No 11) used with these coin-boxes allowed the digit "0" to be dialled without inserting any money, and it was very easy to adapt the dial to dial "9" without inserting money. All other digits from 2 to 8 were in use somewhere in the UK as the initial digits for subscribers' telephone numbers and hence could not easily be used. Had any other digits been used, other digits between that one and the already free "0" would also have been able to be dialled free of charge. No other telephone numbers existed using combinations of the digits "9" and "0" (other than one in Woolwich), therefore there would be no unauthorized "free" calls. Another determining factor was that in many rural exchanges subscribers already dialled the routing digit 9 to call numbers on their parent exchange. This meant that 999 could be made available with no changes at those outlying exchanges, since the main exchange could simply route to the operator when 99 was dialled into its incoming trunks.

Thus the easy conversion of coin-box dial was the deciding factor, along with the fact that 999 was already almost entirely unused, other than for accessing the occasional "position 9" of an Engineering Test Desk in the telephone exchange.

One might think that, in a pulse dialling system, dialling 999 for emergency services is a poor choice (since that combination of three repeated digits takes the longest to dial after three zeros) and that 111 might be more appropriate. One reason is that it would be relatively easy for 111, and other low-number sequences, to be dialled accidentally, including when transmission wires making momentary contact produce a pulse similar to dialling (e.g. when overhead cables touch in high winds).[4][5]

Access to the emergency service is provided for the hearing impaired via Textphone and use of the RNID "Typetalk" relay service. The number is 18000, having previously been 0800 112999.

Since the introduction of mobile phones, the choice of the number 999 has become a particular problem for UK emergency services,[6] as same-digit sequences are most likely dialled by accident due to vibrations and other objects colliding with a keypad. This problem is less of a concern with emergency numbers that use two different digits (e.g., 112, 911).

The pan-European 112 code was introduced in the UK by BT in December 1992, with little publicity. It connects to existing 999 circuits. The GSM standard mandates that the user of a GSM phone can dial 112 without unlocking the keypad, a feature that can save time in emergencies but that also causes some accidental calls. A valid SIM card is required to make a 999/112 emergency call in the UK.[7][8]

On 30 December 2006, West Midlands Ambulance Service gave examples of inappropriate uses of 999 during the festive period, including: a man who could not find his trousers; a man who "couldn't walk from too much dancing"; a man with a finger injury he had sustained two days earlier; and an 18-year-old man who had a toothache.[9] 2008 also saw some abused lines as one reveller called up 999 to ask where New York was, and what time it was there.

It has been reported that on some networks in the UK, and in Ireland dialling 9-1-1 will forward you to the emergency line as well.[10] Despite this, 911 is not the official number in those locations and can not be relied upon in case of emergency.[11]


Since May 2006 a new non-emergency telephone number 101 has been available, initially in Hampshire, the Isle of Wight and then in the Northumbria force area, Cardiff, South Yorkshire, and Leicester & Rutland for calls to the police that did not require an immediate police response.[12] It was planned to be rolled out in the summer of 2008,[13] but funding was withdrawn by the Home Office during 2007, causing some of the 101 lines to close.[14][15][16]

Other countries using 999

Republic of Ireland

In the Republic of Ireland, 999 and the European standard 112 are the national emergency numbers. The 999/112 service is able to respond in Gaeilge, English, French, German, Italian and Polish.[17]

Hong Kong and Macau

The 999 was introduced to Hong Kong during British rule and continues to be used following the handover in 1997.

Macau adopted the same 999 number as that used in Hong Kong for emergency services. After its handover from Portuguese rule to Chinese rule in 1999, it introduced two additional emergency hotline numbers: 110 (mainly for tourists from mainland China) and 112 (mainly for tourists from overseas).


The 999 emergency services in Malaysia is manned by about 138 telephonists from Telekom Malaysia. On-going upgrading works are taking place to introduce the Computer-Telephony Integration (CTI) for hospital exchanges, digital mapping to track the callers' locations and Computer Assisted Despatching (CAD) for online connectivity among the agencies providing the emergency services in the country. All calls to the number are made free of charge.

The worldwide emergency number for GSM mobile phones, 112, also works on all GSM networks in the country. Calls made to this number are redirected to the 999 call centre.


The 112 emergency number is an all-service number in Poland like in the other EU states, but old numbers that were traditionally designated for emergencies are still in use parallel to 112. Those are:

  • 999 for medical emergency
  • 998 for fire emergency
  • 997 for police

United Arab Emirates

In the United Arab Emirates the 999 service is used to contact Police who are capable of forwarding your calls onto an appropriate department.

  • 999 or 998 for ambulance
  • 997 for fire
  • 999 for police


In Singapore the 999 is used to contact the Police

  • 999 For Police
  • 995 For fire and ambulance

Trinidad and Tobago

In Trinidad and Tobago the 999 is used to contact the Police department.

  • 811 is used for medical emergency
  • 990 is used for fire
  • 999 is used for police

See also


  1. ^ Welcome to 101, Home Office,  
  2. ^ a b The Times (2009-09-09). "999: can somebody help? It’s an emergency". Retrieved 2009-09-11.  
  3. ^ The Times (1935-11-11). "The fire in Wimpole Street". Retrieved 2009-09-11.  
  4. ^ BT plc (2007-06-29). "999 celebrates its 70th birthday". Retrieved 2008-01-12.  
  5. ^ BBC (2008-11-26). "When are silent 999 calls cut off?". Retrieved 2008-11-26.  
  6. ^ BBC News Online (2000-03-21). "Mobiles blamed for emergency calls". Retrieved 2008-01-12.  
  7. ^ "The mobile phone user guide - Security". Retrieved 2008-01-12.  
  8. ^
  9. ^ BBC News Online (2006-12-30). "Man who lost trousers dialled 999". Retrieved 2008-01-12.  
  10. ^ Voice Ireland. "Voice Ireland Terms and Conditions". Retrieved 2008-01-19.  
  11. ^ Garda Síochána. "Numbers to contact the Gardaí in an emergency situation". Retrieved 2008-01-21.  
  12. ^ BBC News Online (2006-05-14). "Non-emergency phone line launched". Retrieved 2008-01-12.  
  13. ^ BBC News Online (2006-03-08). "Summer launch for 101 crime line". Retrieved 2008-01-12.  
  14. ^ "Crime line to take its last call". BBC News. 2007-12-07. Retrieved 2008-01-12.  
  15. ^ BBC News Online (2007-11-19). "Bid begins to save 101 crime line". Retrieved 2008-01-12.  
  16. ^ BBC News Online (2007-11-15). "Crime hotline loses funding". Retrieved 2008-01-12.  
  17. ^ RTÉ News (11 February 2009)


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