Thursday, October 23, 2008

Gun, Foot. Foot, Gun.

I spotted this poster inside a District Line carriage on the London Underground today. And I can't help but feel that the Metropolitan Police Service has kind of shot itself in the foot. I don't want to sound like I'm being unduly critical here; after all, I work for the Met. But one thing I do know is that if you want people to do something for you, you need to make it as easy as you can for them to do so. And this falls short of the mark I feel. Here's the history ...

When the first national emergency number was introduced to the UK, we chose 999. I have absolutely no idea why as it was pretty much the slowest number to dial. Yes, dial. This was back in the days before push button technology and you had to dial a number by shoving your finger into a rotating disc with ten holes and then whizzing it around clockwise. All of which means that it took longer to dial 999 than, say 111. The Americas plumped for the altogether more sensible 911 and Europe went one better with 112. But heigh ho, I'm sure there was a good reason.
Anyhow, volume soon became an issue. Firstly, there was the rise in home telephone ownership. Then along came mobile phones of which there are now millions in circulation. People don't always know the direct dial number for their local police or fire station or hospital. But everyone knows 999 so people dial it for anything and everything. Cats stuck up trees ... minor accidents ... noise nuisances ... they've heard it all at Scotland Yard. I remember one operator telling me that she'd even had people phoning 999 for the answer to a particularly cryptic crossword clue. The 999 system was in serious danger of collapsing unless we could divert some of the calls to a non-emergency number. It also meant that real emergencies couldn't get through because someone couldn't get 3 down (seven letters).

Now, there was a project set up by the Home Office to introduce a national non-emergency number to run parallel with the 999 system, using the number 101. Very clever I thought. Memorable. Easy. It's a winner. But then we suffered what the Jargonese people call 'mission drift'. All of a sudden, it's no longer a national project; it's local. In their own words:

'The government has not dropped 101, but is no longer offering grants to local operations. However, the 101 telephony infrastructure is available for local areas to use. Further, the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) recognise the benefits of single access locally and are supportive of local areas implementing the service.'*

So now it's a case of various councils, police authorities etc. investing in their own system with 101 being pushed as the best and most easy to use option. So why has the Met introduced 0300 123 1212? I mean ... how easy is that to remember? I like the '1212' bit as that smacks of the old days when Scotland Yard's phone number really was Whitehall 1212. So why not just have 1212? Why all this 0300 business? It reminded me of this wonderful spoof advert that appeared in the UK sitcom The IT Crowd:

0118 999 881 999 119 725 3. So catchy.

To make matters even worse, this new number costs money to dial. Yes, it's only a local call tariff but it's still money that some people - particularly younger people - can't always afford to spend on their pay-as-you-go mobiles. 999 is still easier to remember ... and free.

We'll see just how well it works.

*from the Home Office Crime Reduction site. The full report on the 101 Project is here if you're dull like me and read such things.


chris hale said...

Good morning Stevyn.

Apparently '999' was chosen as the emergency number because there were no telephone numbers at that time (ie 1937) that started with a '9', and there were other technical reasons relating to the old 'Button A/Button B' payphones that I don't fully understand.

From a practical point of view, 999 was easy to call from a darkened call box; you placed the second finger of your right hand in the '0' (which was right next to the finger stop) and your first finger would naturally fit into the '9'.

Incidentally, if you dial '112' in the UK you will still be put through to the emergency services.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris - Morning. I think I'm right in saying that 911 also puts you through to 999 in this country.

Your 999 origin story makes sense (I never understood the old Button A/ Button B business either). But why has the UK never embraced the US idea of spelling out words using the keypad? 'Dial 1-800-trash!' It's such a clever idea and, with the advent of texting, everyone is more familiar than ever with the position of letters and what numbers they're attached to. Discuss.

John Soanes said...

Interesting - I was under the impression that 999 was chosen because in the time it took for the dial to rotate back into place, you'd have composed yourself.
As opposed to the 'ice cream with a chocolate flake in it' being named a 99, which I presume was so that, as time went on, we weren't surprised when the price gradually crept up to over a quid.

Stevyn Colgan said...

John - An interesting idea ... and just stiff-upper-lippy to be true.

As for the 99 ice cream ... surely it existed pre-decimalisation? I'm sure I had 99s as a small pre-pubescent from Charlie the Obscene Ice Cream Man (there's another story there). Some research is needed I suspect ...

Persephone said...

I agree for the need for a memorable non-emergency number, so, since the MPS seem to need an eleven-digit number, I defiantly propose: 6684-632-6437. Not memorable, you claim? It spells out "not in danger". (Okay, maybe not my best idea...)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Persephone - That's superb! If only we used the letters over here ... 9278-464-8463 would be 'wasting time'!

Anonymous said...

I love the whole numbers/letters thing. Helped a friend move recently and needed to have some unwanted stuff taken away, so we all knew who to call: 1800-got-junk. It's well advertised and catchy and clearly it works.

And in case you're wondering, they came and took away all the junk and what's more they recycle or donate almost everything they take away. Jolly good service.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Rob - Couldn't agree more. I have no idea why it never took off over here - it just seems so sensible.

Janet said...

I'm just wondering EXACTLY where that point is when "being burgled" turns into "have been burgled". When the masked man climbs back out of the broken window? When his back foot steps just clear of your front (or back) doorway? Maybe when he/she calls out: "I'm headed out now! Thanks for all the loot!"

(Getting caught up with your past few days of writings & drawings while eating my lunch.)


Stevyn Colgan said...

Janet - I do recall a similar question bck in the early 80s when Maggie's government (allegedly) blurred the lines between criminal damage and attempted burglary. Hoorah! Burglary figures came down, according to the Home Office ... but just who goes around maliciously climbing into back gardens just to bend or scratch a window frame?

doctawho42 said...

Ah, the tubes. I love that map, the one unerneath the sign which you're actually talking about. I now know all of London because of that map, well, where everything generally is anyway.
Australia's is 000, which I have no real thoughts about. Apparently if you call the American or the British one you get put though to 000. Personally I'd like one to be 666, just one country.