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Fifty years of dialling 111 in NZ

Published: 10:53AM Thursday May 08, 2008 Source: ONE News/Reuters

The phone number which gets dialled 2.7 million times a year celebrates its 50th anniversary with some of those who have manned the lines.

The 111 service is a number no-one ever wants to use, but for three of the first 111 operators it is worth celebrating.

"There'd be a a lot of chatter after but at the time of the call everyone would be silent," says June Himona, former 111 operator.

The New Zealand Fire Service, Ambulance services, the New Zealand Police, and other partners gathered on Thursday morning to mark the day and to launch a new joint emergency services website.

Fire Service Director of Communication Centres, Ian Pickard, sees the 111 service as a significant investment in public safety by delivering a fast and effective way of contacting Fire, Police or Ambulance services.

"Before 111 when people wanted to report a fire, for example, they would either have to know the number for the local fire station - if they had a phone - or activate a fire alarm call box on a lamp post."

The service started as a trial in Masterton and Carterton in September 1958 and was progressively rolled out across the country, with full installation completed by 1988.

The 111 service received about three calls a week. Now, that number is closer to 52,000.

The service has had its fair share of difficulties with public confidence hiting rock bottom in the wake of the disappearance of Iraena Asher four years ago. 

A distraught Asher called for help from the police and was instead sent a taxi that never arrived - she has not been seen since.

"I think the Iraena Asher incident just galvanised us that we need to continually invest in this very important area of public service," says Rob Pope, Deputy Police Commissioner.

However, National Manager of the Police Communications Centres Superintendent Steve Fitzgerald is says the service has learnt a valuable lesson.

"I believe Police now have a 111 service the public can, and should, have confidence in. Does that mean we'll always meet people's expectations? No - on rare occasions we won't. Our people start every shift aiming to get it right for the public, but there is no fail-safe emergency response system anywhere in the world. This is a human business and some days it's not easy," he says.

And the 111 service has also had many success stories.

In 1996 three-year-old Angelique Highgate reached for the phone after her father fell down the stairs.

So why did New Zealand get 111 and not the British 999 50 years ago?

This is mainly because phones in New Zealand were numbered in reverse order, which meant to get the right number of pluses through to telephone exchanges full of British equipment, New Zealand had to switch digits.

Interestingly hang ups, and hoaxes miss dials still account for about two thirds of all emergency calls made.

The new emergency services website can be found HERE .