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When Should You Dial 999 and What Are The Alternatives?

14 December 2018
 December 14, 2018

In an emergency the first thing people usually think to do is dial 999. Since 1937, the service has provided 24/7 access to the emergency services for those in need of urgent assistance.

However, with upwards of 560,000 calls a week according to British Telecom, there is a huge demand on the service. At its busiest time, which is unsurprisingly around midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, handlers can expect 5,000 incoming calls an hour. Over the Christmas period this increases with around 9,000 calls received in the early hours of New Year’s Day.

Although the majority of calls are genuine, an estimated 35% don’t involve actual requests for help. These include accidental calls, deliberate hoaxes or children playing with phones. We’ve also all heard the tales of time-wasting calls, which the emergency services often publicise as a reminder to the public that 999 should not be abused.

When should you dial 999?

  • If there’s immediate danger to life
  • A crime is in progress
  • Someone suspected of a crime is nearby
  • If violence is being used or threatened
  • There’s a medical emergency, examples are:
    • Loss of consciousness
    • Persistent severe chest pain
    • Breathing difficulties
    • Severe bleeding that can’t be stopped
    • Severe allergic reactions
    • Severe burns or scalds

What other options are there to 999?

If a situation doesn’t require an immediate emergency response and there’s no threat to life, then there are a number of alternatives depending on what help you require.

101 – Non-Emergency Number for the Police

Use this to:

  • Report crime and other concerns that don’t require an emergency response
  • If criminal is no longer present or a threat
  • Give information about crime in your area
  • Speak to police about general enquiries

Examples of when to dial 101:

  • Damage or theft of property
  • If you’ve witnessed a crime
  • To speak to a local police officer
  • Missing persons enquiry
  • Minor traffic collision
  • Suspected drug use or dealing

111 – Non-Emergency Medical Number

NHS 111 is a dedicated non-emergency medical helpline which provides support to help take the pressure off the 999 system and hospital A&E departments. By dialling 111, highly trained advisors, supported by healthcare professionals can help to assess your symptoms over the phone and advise on the best medical care.

Call 111 when:

  • Medical help is needed fast but it’s not an emergency
  • You need health information or reassurance about what to do next
  • Medical advice is required out of hours

What should you do if you suffer an emergency abroad?

Although 999 is used in several places around the world such as Poland, Hong Kong and Singapore, most countries use a different emergency number. In fact some even have separate numbers for the police, ambulance and fire services which can confuse visitors.

For this reason an international emergency number was introduced, dialling 112 on a mobile works the same as 999 anywhere in the world. To overcome language barriers, countries in the EU provide a translation service.

What if you can’t dial 999?

In some situations dialling 999 may not be an option, for example if you’re in danger but unable to speak as this could give away your whereabouts to an attacker. Personal alarms which are linked to a monitoring centre can be a discreet alternative in this scenario, as they allow Controllers to listen in and seek assistance on a user’s behalf if required.

These would be recommended in situations where risk is regularly encountered for example if a person is working alone. Monitored lone worker alarms have the added advantage that information on who’s calling and where they are will already be known to Controllers which can save vital time.