accessibility & help

999 - beyond the basics

A man in an emergency response vehicle© Info

Here are seven questions designed to get students thinking and talking. The aim is to explore some little-known aspects of contacting the emergency services.

Most students will know the basics. In an emergency, you dial 999. The operator answers and you say whether you want fire, police or ambulance – or coastguard or mountain or cave rescue. That's the bare outline. The questions below extend into other interesting areas, including the use and limitations of the mobile phone.

Set some of the questions for homework. Assign questions to groups of students, or ask students to choose which to tackle. Alternatively, use them as class discussions and follow up the answers together.

Answers and notes follow the questions.

Age range: 11–19

Curriculum links: PSHE


  1. Most people know to call 999 for the emergency services. A different number is used elsewhere in the European Union. What is it? Does it work in the UK?
  2. Can you call for an emergency service by texting? How?
  3. What happens if you dial the emergency services number, but can't speak – either through illness or because, for example, you are afraid you might be overheard?
  4. How old do you have to be to call the emergency services?
  5. Can you call 999 from a pay-as-you-go mobile phone that has run out of credit? What about one whose keypad is locked? Or doesn't have a SIM card?
  6. Is ringing 999 as a joke, when there isn't actually an emergency, a criminal offence? What about calling accidentally, which can happen when you sit on your phone or it gets knocked in your bag? Should you hold to talk to the operator if you realise that has happened, or just hang up?
  7. Can emergency telephone operators help by telling you what to do in an emergency?


  1. The number is 112. Yes, it works in the UK.
  2. Some 999 schemes for SMS – text messaging – have been tried in different parts of the country. Designed for people who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech-impaired, they are often run by local fire and rescue or police services. It is not straightforward. In some schemes, you have to register before you can use the system. An obvious problem is that SMS cannot be guaranteed to be instant. Texts can take many hours to arrive, and there is no way to prioritise them as urgent. Also, the location of someone texting cannot be pinpointed as accurately as someone using a voice call from a mobile. 
  3. The system for "silent calls" is that they are transferred to an automated system. A recorded voice asks you to tap the phone or dial 5 twice to show you are there. If there is no response, the call is automatically cut off. Operators can override the cut-off if they hear suspicious noises.
  4. There's no age limit. What's more, young children have successfully called 999 and got essential help. A five year old recently did brilliantly when his mother had an epileptic seizure. Read the transcript or listen to the actual conversation.
  5. Yes, you don't need credit because calls to 999 or 112 are free. It's part of the design of phones that these numbers can be called even if the phone is locked. Some people think that 999 calls can be made from a phone without a SIM. In fact,  because of the high number of hoax calls, the United Kingdom decided to block emergency calls from mobile phones without a SIM card.
  6. Yes, it's a criminal offence to make a joke or malicious hoax call. Accidentally triggering a call is not an offence. It is best to stay on the line if you realise this has happened so you can explain to the operator. Otherwise there is a chance that services will be sent looking for you.
  7. Yes. Operators can talk you through what to do and may encourage you to stay on the line for that reason. They won't delay sending the emergency service you require. Listen to a caller being given instructions on how to carry out the Heimlich Manoeuvre, to clear an obstruction that is choking his wife.


This resource was written by P. J. White and produced in February 2009.






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