BT received 105,000 emergency 999 calls a day during lockdown

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BT now answers more than 90,000 emergency ‘999’ calls every day and received as many as 105,000 during the peak of the coronavirus crisis – equivalent to one call every three seconds.

The company’s 999 agents were given key workers status during lockdown and an additional 100 staff were trained to cope with the increased volume of calls – some of whom were volunteers.

“At BT we’re proud to play a critical role in supporting the outstanding work of the emergency services,” said Mike Gauterin, Customer Service Director, BT Enterprise. “During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic our 999 call agents faced a significant increase in calls, and have gone above and beyond to provide a critical role to the UK public.”

BT 999 calls 

The system was established after a fatal fire at a doctor surgery led to proposals for a new way to telephone operators to identify emergency calls and the creation of an easy to remember number.

The first suggestions were 707, as these keys spell ‘SOS’, 333 and 111. However telephone wires moving in the wind could be transmitted as ‘111’ so 999 was chosen for practical reasons. Of course 911 is the number in the US, 000 in Australia and 112 across Europe.

Initially only London was covered and t it wasn’t until the 1940s that nationwide coverage was achieved. However the service has proved invaluable in saving lives. New figures released to mark Emergency Services Day show that the volume of calls has increased from around 25 million a year in 2000 to 33 million today.

One of the most significant technological advances has been Advanced Mobile Location (AML) which can pinpoint a user’s location to within three metres. AML sends a text message to the person calling and retrieves GPS data. The system is now compatible with 70 per cent of Android and iOS devices.

“Back in the day we had three people answering one 999 call and we had to check the location of each call manually,” explained Mary Davies, a BT 999 agent for 53 years. “Today, our technology has advanced to enable us to track the accuracy of the call and to pinpoint the location, meaning we’re able to rapidly pass information to the Emergency Authorities to help save lives.

BT is also helping the government build the 4G Emergency Services Network (ESN). The multi-billion pound ESN will replace the analogue-based ‘Airwave’ radio system currently used by police forces, firefighters and ambulance crews and promises more resilient connectivity and access to data-rich applications that will improve public safety. Operational costs will also be significantly lower.

To date, EE has built more than 500 sites for the ESN, and upgraded more than 19,000 existing locations. However the Home Office-led project is overbudget and has been subject to significant delays.

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.