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An old British payphone (Pic: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
An old British payphone (Pic: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
An old British payphone (Pic: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Cultural differences aren’t always about the big stuff like accents, language and the correct ingredients for a Milky Way bar. Sometimes there are relatively subtle differences that don’t amount to more than a hill of beans, but somehow stick out like a sore thumb nevertheless.

Take the phone number everyone rings in case of an emergency. All across North America it is 911, and in Britain it’s 999. Well, Britain and Ireland. And Bahrain, Bangladesh, Botswana, Ghana, Hong Kong, Kenya, Macau, Malaysia, Mauritius, Qatar, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Kingdom of Swaziland, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Arab Emirates, and Zimbabwe. Across Europe it is 112.

In the U.K., 999 is how you reach the police, the ambulance service, the fire brigade and the coastguard, should you need to. It will also give the caller access to lifeboat services, mountain rescue, cave rescue, moorland search and rescue (for a small island, there are a lot of misty moors to get lost in), quicksand search and rescue (particularly in Morecambe Bay), mine rescue and bomb disposal services.

The number was first introduced in 1937 in central London, following an incident where a resident of Wimpole Street had tried to call the fire brigade about a nearby inferno in which lives were lost, but the caller had been held in a queue by the operator. This genuinely lead to a strongly-worded letter to the Times, and then a government inquiry, and then a single number to call the emergency services, which covered just a 12-mile radius around Oxford Circus. After World War II, the scheme was broadened to other urban areas, and it achieved national saturation by 1976.

The number itself was chosen because it was easy to find and easy to explain for a rotary dial phone, and the position of the hole for 9 (one up from 0) meant you didn’t have to be able to see in order to make the call.

The downside of using the same three digits is that it’s relatively easy to accidentally dial the number, so in an era of pushbutton payphones, it makes more sense to have different numbers, and ones that don’t sit next to each other on the keypad.

This is partly why 911 caught on as an alternative number in North America. Winnipeg in Canada had adopted 999 in 1959, but there were already steps in place to create a nationwide American number, after a push from the National Association of Fire Chiefs for a number that could be used to report fires. But it wasn’t until 1967 that the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended the creation of a single number for emergencies, and when they met with AT&T to implement it, the number chosen was 911.

This took a while to catch on, however, and it wasn’t until the late ’70s that there was something approaching blanket service on that number.

And in a neat switcharound, given that the emergency number is another British gift to the world, most British Overseas Territories—like Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands—use 911.

And there’s even a pop music element to this cross-cultural story. There was a punk band in 1976 called 999, who had self-consciously named songs like “Emergency” and “Homicide” but none called “Hello Emergency Services, Which Service Do You Require?”

And then in the late ’90s there was a boyband called 911, who specialized in soupy disco covers, like this:

And if you wanted to call the cops for crimes against the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, at least you’d have the number to hand.

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By Fraser McAlpine