“999, what’s your emergency?”

A civilian control room operator, Heavitree Police Station, 1970s. (PA.

A system for immediately notifying the emergency services of an incident was implemented in the UK in 1937 with the introduction of the ‘999’ telephone number by the Metropolitan Police. The number was introduced following a house fire in 1935 in which five people died. During the incident, the telephone switchboard was flooded with calls and the operators had no means to prioritise emergency calls over routine ones. One caller was held in a queue for several minutes and was so concerned about the delay that he later wrote a letter to the editor of The Times newspaper. The letter caught the eye of someone in government, and a review was initiated.

‘999’ was originally limited to a small area of London; a twelve-mile radius around Oxford Circus. Over time, it was adopted in other cities and towns across the country and became a fully national service in the 1960s. Long before the existence of mobile telephones and automated exchanges, telephone calls in the UK were fielded by the General Post Office (GPO), which was rebranded as British Telecom (BT) in 1981. The caller picked up the telephone handset, dialled ‘0’, and requested the relevant number or destination from the operator. By dialling ‘999’ on a rotary telephone, a red flashing beacon was activated at the telephone exchange which prompted the operator to prioritise the call. From the outset, the operator has always first asked the caller which service they require, which is still in practice in the present day.

In the southwest of England, ‘999’ was adopted in Plymouth, Truro, and Kingsbridge on 1st January 1946. At the time, the chief constable of Plymouth hailed the scheme as a step forward for the city, and said, “As far as the police are concerned, we can guarantee that within five minutes of the receipt of the call a wireless patrol car can reach any part of the city.” [1] To maximise success, the scheme had to work in hand with radio-equipped police cars and motorcycles, and in some areas such as Torbay (where even in the present day the landscape provides challenges for the police ‘Airwave’ radio system), technological advances had to be made in order to roll out ‘999’ uniformly and efficiently and it took many years before the whole of Devon, Cornwall, and the Isles of Scilly obtained coverage.

In Cornwall from 1946, emergency calls for the police were passed to Truro Police Station and were answered by the station sergeant. The sergeant was assisted by a radio operator who dispatched police officers to incidents which needed an emergency response. In Plymouth, emergency police calls were passed to the control room at Greenbank Police Station, which was the headquarters of the Plymouth City Police force. In the Devon Constabulary, calls were managed from the information room at Middlemoor on the outskirts of Exeter, whilst a separate system existed in Exeter City Centre, which had its own independent police force and managed calls from Waterbeer Street Police Station, and from Heavitree Police Station from 1960.

In 1965, a government inquiry into the proposed amalgamation of Exeter City Police with the Devon Constabulary highlighted problems with the ‘999’ system in an area where two police forces operated very closely. The inquiry found that on many occasions, the GPO operators struggled to identify whether the ‘999’ call came from within the boundary of the city of Exeter (policed by Exeter City Police) or the surrounding districts (policed by the Devon Constabulary). In these instances, the operator sometimes connected the call to the wrong force, necessitating a transfer of responsibility from one force to another, and therefore caused delays in the police response. The inquiry also found that if multiple calls were made about the same incident, it was potluck whether the operators had enough local knowledge to pass the calls to the city or county police, and sometimes both forces ended up responding to the same incident. [2]

By 1960, Cornwall had near total ‘999’ coverage, save for a small area around Bude. All calls were by this time intercepted by the information room at Bodmin Police Station. The force had only two dedicated emergency telephone lines however, and in the summer of 1960, Cornwall’s chief constable, Richard Bonnar Matthews, became concerned about the number of frivolous calls made and said, “…we do not want them cluttered up with trivial reports and complaints”. [3] Examples of calls made to the ‘999’ number in that year included:

  • A report of a dog puncturing beach balls at Porth Beach.
  • A complaint about the toilets at a holiday camp being dirty.
  • A complaint about a vending machine failing to dispense.
  • “My husband and I have been working in the garden and that Sarah keeps aggravating us”.
  • Multiple requests to speak personally with specific police officers.

The amalgamation of the southwest’s police forces on 1st June 1967, which created the modern Devon & Cornwall Police, resulted in a reduction in the number of control rooms in Devon and Cornwall, however over the course of the 1970s and 80s, regional control rooms returned as the force adapted to ever increasing demand. The force returned to a two-room setup in the early 2000s – Middlemoor Control Room, in Exeter, and Crownhill Control Room, in Plymouth.

Camborne Control Room in the 1980s. Note the ‘Racal’ call recorder on the right. (PA.

Computerisation changed the nature of emergency call handling. The ability to record and playback ‘999’call audio came about in 1979 with the purchase and installation at police headquarters of a ‘Racal’ machine which could record 32 channels of telephone calls and radio traffic simultaneously onto magnetic tape. [4] Additional machines were acquired in 1981 and were installed at the Camborne and Paignton control rooms. [5] The ability to record calls also permitted audio recordings to be exhibited as evidence in criminal investigations. In the present day, calls are recorded digitally on a system called ‘Red Box’. FALCON, the force’s first computer system for electronically logging and managing live incidents, was introduced in 1987 [6], followed by OIS in 1993 [7] and STORM in 2012. The latter system permits the seamless transfer of incident logs to the Avon & Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire police forces. Incidents can also be transferred to British Transport Police and Highways England.

Middlemoor control room in the 1990s. The officer is using the ‘OIS’ command and control system. (PA.

At its most efficient, the service allows the prompt dispatch of police officers, firefighters, paramedics, or the coastguard to incidents where life is at risk. Put simply, ‘999’ saves lives. However, every year thousands of calls are made accidentally. The prevalence of the mobile telephone in the 1990s and 2000s caused an increase in unintended calls being made, and the situation remains the same in the present day despite telephone manufacturers moving towards lockable touch screen devices. The most common reason for accidental calls is ‘pocket dials’, when the phone is placed in a pocket or bag, and human movement or other contents of the pocket or bag makes contact with the buttons or screen. Other reasons include children dialling accidentally whilst handling mobile phones, the triggering of one-touch emergency buttons, and accidental use of voice-activated technology. In 2002, the ‘Silent Solutions’ scheme was launched by BT to both combat the problem of silent emergency calls, as well provide a means for the public to call for emergency situations in scenarios where they are unable, or it is too dangerous, to speak.

In 2020, Devon & Cornwall Police received 255,087 ‘999’ calls, 652,878 ‘101’ calls, 106,068 emails, and 13,046 webchats. [8] It is very much a reality that the police are not always able to answer 999 calls promptly. Be it the sheer volume of calls compared to the number of police staff available to answer them, or accidental, inappropriate, or hoax use of the number preventing genuine emergency calls from getting through. Since 1967, it has been a criminal offence in England and Wales to make a hoax call to the police which results in the unnecessary and wasteful dispatch of police officers [9]. In 2004, a law was passed which rendered the raising of a false alarm of fire a criminal offence [10].

Civilian contact officer Chloe Bowen, 2017.

You should only dial ‘999’ in an emergency. An emergency is any incident where life is at risk, a crime is in progress, an offender in a crime is nearby, or immediate action is required in order to save life, limb, and/or property. Remember, if you dial ‘999’ accidentally, please stay on the line with the BT Operator and let them know the call was made in error. If you hang up or don’t say anything, the BT Operator may pass the call to the police for investigation. You will not get in trouble for accidentally calling 999.

External links

The 999 ‘Silent Solutions’ service: Silent_solution_guide.pdf (policeconduct.gov.uk)

Devon & Cornwall Police advice for dialling ‘999’: Emergencies 999 | Devon and Cornwall Police (devon-cornwall.police.uk)


  1. ^ ‘New Emergency Number for Use of Public’ Western Morning News 31 December 1945, p2
  2. ^ Report into the Amalgamation of Exeter City Police with Devon Constabulary 1965
  3. ^ ‘999 Calls Must be for Genuine Emergencies’ Cornish Guardian 14 July 1960, p8
  4. ^ Annual Report of the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary 1979
  5. ^ Annual Report of the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary 1981
  6. ^ Annual Reports of the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary 1987 and 1988
  7. ^ Annual Reports of the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary 1993 and 1994
  8. ^ Data supplied by Chief Superintendent Ian Drummond-Smith, head of Devon & Cornwall Police’s Contact Resolution Command (CRC), for the period 01/01/2020-31/12/2020
  9. ^ Section 5(2) Criminal Law Act 1967
  10. ^ Section 49(1) Fire Services Act 2004

Words by Cf Systems