originally published July 2, 2012
Okay, so your drunken neighbor was showing off his crossbow, when he accidentally shot a flaming arrow that sailed over his fence, nicked your leg, and started your garden shed on fire. Now you have three problems. One, there’s a McNugget-size chunk of your leg now smoldering among your chrysanthemums. Two, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose that Garden Weasel you ordered by phone back in 1992 because Jim Martindale promised it would give you two inches of mulch, and the fire may spread to your home. Three, you appear to have a potentially dangerous and sociopathic neighbor.
If you live in North America, you’d probably call 9-1-1, explain the situation, and await help. If you live in England (and I would assume then that your prized botanical instrument might be called the Garden Hazel Dormouse, or something more British-y), you’d ring up 9-9-9 on your mobile and await the bobbies. But it wasn’t always so simple.
Back in the old-timey days, you’d pick up your telephone receiver and await the operator’s voice. Stating “Police, please,” would get you the police. If you lived in a big city, the operator would dispatch whatever you needed. In a small town, the operator might tell you where you can find the nearest doctor, would often sound the town’s fire alarm herself, and may even have had the responsibility of running through the streets, screaming of an impending apocalypse. Small towns were a lot more dramatic back in those days.
Once the telephone companies’ manual switching systems were changed over to automatic, people began to panic. How could people be expected to dial something for emergencies after having been trained to simply scream into the receiver for the right crew to be dispatched? Pandemonium would ensue; the terrorists would win.
To make things worse, every exchange might have its own emergency number. If the above incident occurred in 1960’s Auckland, New Zealand (so… you’d lose your Garden Kiwi?), there were forty exchanges in the city. So either you knew your emergency number by heart, or you’d have to spend some time flipping through Auckland’s 500-page phone book to find the right emergency number for your region, meanwhile allowing sepsis to attack your wound, the fire to spread to your yellow-eyed penguin enclosure, and your neighbor to turn his fiery wrath on the nearest toothbrush fence.
In the UK and North America, you could simply dial ‘0’ and get the operator to connect you. But it was always faster to take the direct route.
London, England boasted the first dedicated emergency number. On July 1, 1937 (75 years plus one day ago!) 9-9-9 was instituted as London’s go-to digits for urgent situations. When someone would dial it, a loud buzzer would sound and a red light would flash in the operator place… operator room… the operatorium? I’m not sure what they call it.
With today’s technology 9-9-9 can be accidentally dialed by anyone with a slight tremor or an aptly-placed wallet bumping against one’s phone in their pocket. Back when it was introduced, it was highly unlikely someone would accidentally spin triple-nines on a rotary dial.
Los Angeles began using 1-1-6 as an emergency line in 1946. I can’t imagine why this arbitrary trio was chosen. Winnipeg boasted the first emergency number in Canada, but had the sense to adopt the British triple-9. Americans first dialed 9-1-1 on February 10, 1968, when a housewife in Haleyville, Alabama called to report that her husband had been abducted by aliens, and now believed that he was human embodiment of George McGovern’s second-favorite pair of pants.
After Alabama, Alaska was the second state to make use of the number. Surprisingly, it took until the 1980s before the entire continent caught up and started using 9-1-1. It was a clumsy transition because telephone exchange boundaries didn’t always match up with political ones. So you could call 9-1-1 and be connected with the service in the neighboring county, at which point the operator would smugly laugh at your misfortune (I’m assuming all neighboring counties are embroiled in a constant bitter Springfield-Shelbyville rivalry).
Eventually someone developed ‘Enhanced 911’ services which automatically display the caller’s phone number and address when you call in. This is handy for immediate dispatch of emergency services no matter whether you connected with the right exchange or not. It’s also unfortunate for people like myself, who experimented with prank calling back in those carefree pre-caller-ID days of my youth. A giggly call to emergency services was fun until we hung up and the phone rang, an ominous voice warning our ten-year-old selves to knock it the hell off.
From that point on, we stuck with looking up “R. McDonald” in the phone book, then calling to see if the gentleman who answered still spoke regularly with Grimace and the Hamburglar.
In 1972, the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations selected 1-1-2 as the preferred standard. This makes sense; it’s a lot quicker to dial on a rotary phone than any of the 9-based numbers, and it’s not likely to be dialed by accident. It may backfire if you try to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on your tone-dial push-button phone though. I’m always looking for the downside.
Some nations still aim to make dialing in emergency situations as confusing as possible. In Egypt you’ll dial 1-2-2 for police, 1-2-3 for an ambulance, and 1-8-0 for fire. I suppose 1-2-4 was probably taken by some emergency frozen yogurt service.
In South Africa, 1-0-1-1-1 is what you have to dial for police or fire emergencies, but if you just need an ambulance, you’ll have to remember to dial 1-0-1-7-7 instead. I’m sure in our crazy-neighbor-with-a-crossbow example, the police dispatcher would be kind enough to send an ambulance your way.
Lebanon aims to encourage your early demise by assigning 1-1-2, 1-4-0, and 1-7-5 for police, ambulance and fire respectively. Before adopting the European standard of 1-1-2, Sweden used to force its residents to dial 9-0-0-0-0 for emergencies, which meant that if you owned a rotary phone, chances are you’ll bleed out before you’d finished dialing the number.
I think it’s a remarkable sign of progress and good fortune if you live in a nation courteous enough to centralize all three emergency services to a single trio of digits. Still, it would have been fun living in an era where you could just pick up the receiver and yell at someone to send the right people.
I really don’t want to have to do a lot of thinking when my neighbor’s running around with a flame-flinging crossbow. Can you blame me?