999 – The history of the ‘Hooter’

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While the digits 9-1-1 win the popularity contest for the most popular emergency service globally, the very first emergency number ever to be put into circulation was ‘across the pond’ in London on June 30, 1937, by British Telecom.

As is typically the case it, the need for the service was inspired by a disaster involving to tragic loss of several lives. In November of 1935, five women died during a fire on Wimpole Street. As the story goes, neighbors who saw the fire, tried desparately to report it by dialing zero and asking the operator for the fire services. This method for summoning the fire department had been the long standard practice since 1927. Unfortunately, on this particular occasion, the telephone operator switchboard had been particularly jammed with non-emergency calls; therefore the emergency callers were unable to get through to report the emergency.

General-post-office-logoThe General Post Office, who at the time ran the telephone network in London, decided that a new, easy to remember three-digit number was needed, allowing citizens to reach emergency services quickly. Ensuring calls received the appropriate level of priority by BT operators; an alert signal would be triggered indicating the emergency call. Using the latest technology available in the late 1930’s, a flashing light accompanied by an audio device -dubbed as a “Hooter”.

I’ll give you all a moment to recover from your snickering – All done? Great, then let’s continue with today’s history lesson.

The trigger for the lights and their accompanying Hooter was the number 9-9-9. If you are a tech history geek like myself and are interested in the full story behind choosing 999 as the number, Gary Holland from the BBC wrote an interesting article on this very topic telling the entire story.

Logo_112_20100929Currently, across the European Union member states, 112 is recognized as the official emergency number, and along with 911 are recommended by the IETF as the preferred primary emergency numbers. Despite 112 being in place, in most places, the historical and legacy numbers continue to operate. According to EENA the European Emergency Number Association, technology is not always the primary concern. The most troubling hindrance is the lack of knowledge by citizens. Even though 112 has been the EU-wide emergency number for some time, according to recent surveys, only single-digit percentage growths have been seen over the past several years with three out of four European citizens still not aware that they can dial 112 all over Europe.

PBX or MLTS administrators, when addressing their emergency call dialing, should examine their user base and understand the need to support additional emergency numbers. 911 and 9-911 are distinct entries in your emergency dialing tables, but if you find that you have a large employee base that includes folks from Europe, it would be wise or to provision 112 and 9-112 or 999 and 9-999 as valid dialing patterns in the PBX as well. Just make sure that you translate anything that is not 911 to the digits 911 as today’s landline carrier networks are likely not provisioned to recognize emergency numbers beyond 911.

Oddly enough, this isn’t the case on most cellular networks today. In fact, not only does my iPhone understand 911 is an emergency number, others such as 112, 999, 000, 114 and 118, and likely several others, are treated the same. Dialing any of these will put the device into “emergency mode”, invoking functionality or disabling others as defined by the carrier profile. The phone never actually ‘dials’ anything, it merely indicates to the network that the user is making an emergency call. This mechanism is how multiple numbers are all supported and translated to the proper emergency service in the country where you are located.

In turn, the network then connects me as if I had dialed 911, or the appropriate local emergency number, directly.

DISCLAIMER: 
PLEASE TAKE MY WORD ON THIS, AND TRUST ME THAT THIS WORKS.
DO NOT TRY TO TEST THIS YOURSELF. YOU’LL SIMPLY TIE UP EMERGENCY LINES WITH NON-EMERGENCY TRAFFIC, PUTTING LIVES AT RISK. THE 9-1-1 OPERATOR WILL NOT SEE ANYTHING DIFFERENT THAN IF YOU DIAL 9-1-1, THE NORMAL EMERGENCY NUMBER, OR EVEN KNOW THAT YOU HAVE DIALED ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY.

As we move forward with new communication technologies and modalities, SIP will be the primary protocol used for transport. Based on this, phone numbers will become less and less relevant, and an endpoint or destination name will replace it. My identity, and how to reach me will shift from 908-848-2602 to something more like my email address FletcherM@Avaya.com. Which is another reason why routing emergency calls based on telephone numbers is an archaic construct that does not fit the next generation 911 model, and we must STOP relying on phone numbers as a location cross-reference.

While the people that manage those databases have the financial incentive to keep customers locked into this irrelevant technology, maintaining phone number to location correlation, there’s far too much automation, complexity, and expense associated with that to remain as the right way forward.

Emergency services need to be able to migrate to simply “SOS” as an emergency destination address, and location information needs to be conveyed in the PIDF-LO location object in the SIP header. If the financial model has to change for some providers, then so be it; these folks must learn to adapt, or cease their operations. We are talking about life safety services, and profits need to be put on the back burner. While there is nothing wrong with cost recovery of sensible technology, 9-1-1 is not a license to steal.

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