Crunch Number – An Irishman’s Diary about dialling 999

The papers reported a case from France in 1986, wherein a tied-up robbery victim had called the local emergency number (112 presumably) with his “tongue”

The papers reported a case from France in 1986, wherein a tied-up robbery victim had called the local emergency number (112 presumably) with his “tongue”


The practice of dialling 999 in emergencies is 80 years old today, at least in London, where it was first used. On this side of the Irish Sea, it’s a few years younger. In fact, ironically, it was not available here during the official “Emergency”, aka the second World War.

Even after that, the concept of it being a free service, easily contacted in a panic, took time to catch on. In 1946, this newspaper noted that the number could now be used in Dublin, from payphones, but that “for technical reasons”, callers had to put twopence in the slot and, when the operator answered, “press Button A”. As older readers may recall, Button A activated the phone’s internal trapdoor, after which your money was gone.

Ten years later, a full-page pictorial spread took readers behind the scenes of the emergency service, showing what happened, and where, when the magic numbers were dialled.  

But it also alluded to the growing popularity of prank calls and threatened nemesis on hoaxers. They were often betrayed by their “tone” of voice, it warned, and if the operator was suspicious, a patrol car might be dispatched to the source of the call.

Even as late as the 1970s, however, genuine emergencies could sometimes be mistaken as spurious. An outraged Athlone reader wrote to this page in 1974 to complain of his experiences when trying to report a “grave matter” (as he added, channelling Hamlet: “it could have been a very GRAVE matter”) to the emergency services. The incident began with a brawl outside his house, located opposite a cinema. One person was seriously injured. So after giving first aid, he made several attempts to ring 999, but nobody answered. Then, finally resorting to the main operator – 10 – he did get through to somebody, whose advice was to “go home and sleep it off”.

Twelve years later again, another letter-writer suggested a technical problem with the number. It had been first chosen in part for its proximity to the “stop” on the old dials, making it easily located in dark or smoky conditions. But that meant the caller’s finger had to travel right around the dial, then let go while the mechanism recoiled, and repeat.

So when the papers reported a case from France in 1986, wherein a tied-up robbery victim had called the local emergency number (112 presumably) with his “tongue”, an Irish Times reader expressed scepticism that such an operation would be possible here.

The problem, as explained, was that once you dislodged the receiver, you had only 25 seconds before the dialling tone changed to an engaged one. “Have you ever tried to dial 999 within 25 seconds when your hands are tied?” the reader asked.

But push-button phones were about to make the task easier. And when, for example, a Ballyhaunis filling station was raided in 2006, a bound assistant did call 999 in just this manner. As for the now-ubiquitous touch-screens, you can also use your tongue to dial numbers on those, as I have just confirmed via an unpleasant experiment with my iPhone.

The circumstances in which the 999 service was born have a sad resonance with recent events in London. It was among the responses to a fatal house fire in that city’s Wimpole Street in November 1935.  

Five women died and the inability of witnesses to alert the fire brigade quickly was blamed.

But it’s interesting to note that when the 999 service was established on June 30th, 1937, it attracted some scorn in the parliament. “How does a lady with a burglar in the house remember to dial 999?” asked a Conservative MP, to laughter.

In the event, the triple-9 combination proved an instant success there and has remained so. Even here, where it was slow to take off – and where in some places, you used to have to dial 9999 – it has made an indelible mark on consciousness.

Somehow, “nine” just sounds more urgent than other numbers. The German language may have helped.  

There was an inadvertent marketing boost for the service from the 2004 film Downfall, in which an em-bunkered Hitler bangs the table while shouting “Nein! Nein! Nein!” repeatedly, a sequence that has launched a thousand internet memes.

Since the 1990s, Ireland – and indeed the UK – has also adopted the EU emergency number 112. But that exists side-by-side with 999, which is still the one most of us think of first. Irish headline-writers prefer it too.

So even in the age of Brexit, when the UK is saying “Nein, Nein, Nein” to Europe, the old number looks likely to survive.