On This Day
1937 – The world’s first emergency telephone number, 999, is introduced in London.
First introduced in the London area on 30 June 1937, the UK’s 999 number is the world’s oldest emergency call telephone service. The system was introduced following a fire in a house in Wimpole Street on 10 November 1935, in which five women were killed. A neighbour had tried to telephone the fire brigade and was so outraged at being held in a queue by the Welbeck telephone exchange that he wrote a letter to the editor of The Times, which prompted a government inquiry.
The initial scheme covered a 12-mile (19 km) radius around Oxford Circus and the public were advised only to use it in ongoing emergency if “for instance, the man in the flat next to yours is murdering his wife or you have seen a heavily masked cat burglar peering round the stack pipe of the local bank building.” The first arrest – for burglary – took place a week later and the scheme was extended to major cities after World War II and then to the whole UK in 1976.
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 in addition to the 0 digit (then used to call the operator), without allowing free use of numbers involving other digits; other combinations of free call 9 and 0 were later used for more purposes, including multiples of 9 (to access exchanges before STD came into use) as a fail-safe for attempted emergency calls, e.g. 9 or 99, reaching at least an operator.
US style rotary phone dial
As it happens, the choice of 999 was fortunate for accessibility reasons, compared with e.g. lower numbers, because in the dark or in dense smoke 999 could be dialled by placing a finger one hole away from the dial stop (see the articles on rotary dial and GPO telephones) and rotating the dial to the full extent three times. This enables all users including the visually impaired to easily dial the emergency number. It is also the case that it is relatively easy for 111, and other low-number sequences, to be called accidentally, including when transmission wires making momentary contact produce a pulse similar to dialling (e.g. when overhead cables touch in high winds).
Hoax calls and improper use are a problem. For these reasons, there are frequent public information campaigns in the UK on the correct use of the 999 system.
Alternative three-digit numbers for non-emergency calls have also been introduced in recent years. 101 was introduced for non-urgent calls in England and Wales The scheme was extended to Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Trials of 111 as a number to access health services in the UK for urgent but not life-threatening cases began in England in 2010. The main roll-out occurred from 2011 to 2013, with a number of delays, and was completed by February 2014. In Scotland, the NHS24 service moved from 0845 424 2424 to 111 on 29 April 2014. NHS Direct Wales continues to use 0845 46 47 despite it costing up to 57p per minute from mobile phones.
In 2008–2009, Nottinghamshire Police ran a successful pilot of Pegasus, a database containing the details of people with physical and learning disabilities or mental health problems, who have registered with the force because their disabilities make it difficult for them to give spoken details when calling the police. Those registered on the database are issued with a personal identification number (PIN) that can be used in two ways. By phone – either 999 or the force’s non-emergency 101 number can be used – once a person is put through to the control room, they only need to say “Pegasus” and their PIN. Their details can then be retrieved from the database and the caller can quickly get on with explaining why they have called. In person – the Pegasus PIN can be told or shown to a police officer. Pegasus is also used by the City of London Police, Dyfed Powys Police, Surrey Police & Lincolnshire Police.
The introduction of push-button (landline, cordless and mobile) telephones has produced a problem for UK emergency services, due to the ease of same-digit sequences being accidentally keyed, e.g., by objects in the same pocket as a telephone (termed ‘pocket dialling’) or by children playing with a telephone. This problem is less of a concern with emergency numbers that use two different digits, such as 112 and 911 although on landlines 112 suffers much of the same risk of false generation as the 111 code which was considered and rejected when the original choice of 999 was made.
The pan-European 112 code was introduced in the UK in April 1995 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. All mobile telephones will make emergency calls with the keypad locked. Originally a valid SIM card was not required to make a 999/112 emergency call in the UK. However, as a result of high numbers of untraceable hoax calls being made, this feature is now blocked by all UK networks. Most UK mobile telephone handsets will dial 999/112 without a SIM inserted (or with a locked/invalid SIM), but the call will not be connected. Following the blocking of SIM-less calls, in 2009 the UK networks introduced emergency call roaming. This allows a user with a valid SIM of a UK network to make emergency calls on any network for which they have coverage.
Silent solution 55 is the name given to the initiative that allows people to call 999 when they aren’t able to speak. If there is no answer, the operator will then ask you to cough, or make another audible sign that you’re in need of police assistance. If you’re in too much danger to make any sound at all, the call will be put through to an automated system which asks the caller to press 55 if they’re in danger.
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Born On This Day
1912 – María Luisa Dehesa Gómez Farías, Mexican architect (d. 2009)
María Luisa Dehesa Gómez Farías (30 June 1912 – 11 March 2009) was a Mexican architect who worked for close to 50 years in the Federal District of Mexico City, primarily designing single-family homes and apartment buildings. She was the first Mexican woman to graduate with a degree in architecture.
María Luisa Dehesa Gómez Farías was born on 30 June 1912 in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico to Ramón Dehesa and María Luisa Gómez Farías y Canedo, daughter of the Mexican Minister in London, Benito Gómez Farías [es]. She was the granddaughter of Teodoro A. Dehesa Méndez on her paternal side and great-granddaughter of Valentín Gómez Farías on her maternal side.
In 1933 she enrolled at the Academia de San Carlos (the National School of Architecture) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In her class of 113 students, only five were women and they were required to study in a separate workshop from the men. She graduated in 1937, the first Mexican woman to graduate with a degree in architecture. Her thesis, which won honorable mention from the jurors, was entitled Artillery Barracks Type. It was accepted in 1939 and she attained her professional designation.
After she finished school, Dehesa married Manuel Millán and they subsequently had four children. She joined the Public Works Department in Mexico City and served for nearly 50 years in various divisions, primarily designing single-family homes and apartment buildings. In 1974, she was announced as a joint winner of the Ruth Rivera Prize, together with the first Mexican female civil engineer, Concepción Mendizábal Mendoza. In 2006, the College of Architects of Mexico City, honored her for her contributions.
Notimex published Dehesa’s memoirs, entitled Los Años Valientes, with illustrations by her daughter Elizabeth Millán de Guerra, a graphic designer. Dehesa died in Mexico City in 2009.
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