Go to:

Annette King

8 May, 2008

Fiftieth anniversary of 111 emergency service


A series of events happened in New Zealand in the late 1950s that were to have a dramatic and lasting impact on New Zealanders - from Arnold Nordmeyer’s budget in 1958, to the opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1959, which brought vast changes in the daily lives of people living on Auckland’s North Shore.

It was an event in between those two, however, that we are here to mark today and over the next year.

In September 1958 the trial began in Wairarapa of a 111 emergency service that was eventually to have an immense impact on the lives and safety of New Zealanders wherever they live.

 We know both the Auckland Harbour Bridge and Nordy’s black budget were controversial in their time, and the 111 system has not been without controversy either.

 There have been instances of personal tragedy to remind us that no system can be completely error-proof, and shortcomings can soon become very obvious.

 The reality, however, is that from the hesitant beginnings in Masterton and Carterton in 1958, New Zealand has developed a magnificent emergency call system that we can proudly call our own, and that is why I'm delighted to join you to mark this milestone in 111 history.

 Before I discuss the milestone in more detail, I want to thank you for asking me to join you today, and to acknowledge our MC John Perham, Masterton Mayor Garry Daniell, Carterton Deputy Mayor Ruth Carter; and the chief executives and members of our emergency services; and our special guests who played their part 50 years ago.

 Fifty years represents a significant lifetime, and when a service lasts that long, no matter how many times it is refreshed and modernised, you can be sure it is generally serving the public good.

 Many people played a major role in setting up what was then known as the One-Double-One service.

 At the forefront was Chief Fire Officer Arthur Varley. He was recruited from the UK to address shortcomings in emergency response identified in the official report on the 1947 Ballantyne's fire. He is reputed to have applied quite a bit of pressure to have a universal emergency number adopted!

 A committee established in 1957 planned the introduction of 111, starting, as has already been mentioned, with the trial in Carterton and Masterton.

 On the ground in Wairarapa ironing out the wrinkles were District Engineer Doug Burns and the Supervisor General of Masterton's Chief Post Office, John Moriarty, and I'm delighted that Doug Burns' daughter Robyn Blackett is with us today.

 Also pitching in were technicians, the staff from the three emergency services, the people who worked in the telephone exchange... the list goes on.

 England introduced 999 in 1937 and Arthur Varley in particular was familiar with it as an effective way of requesting help in an emergency.

 To quote Mr Burns: "...On automatic exchanges the emergency set-up is very different. For local calls people are expected to dial their numbers, and to call the Fire Brigade or the Police or Ambulance they must know what number to dial - which in an emergency is not as easy as it sounds.

 "Let us look critically at this apparently simple problem. The numbers for the Fire Brigade etc are at present different for every exchange --- the telephone directory must be consulted. A telephone directory contains usually the telephone numbers of a dozen or more exchanges - the Auckland directory has 500 pages and 40 exchanges.

 "One can imagine that a person in a panic might have some difficulty in finding the right number in that lot. His difficulties might be worse if the directory happened to be torn in just the place he wanted, or if the house was on fire and the lights had fused or he had trodden on his spectacles in a hurry.

 "Similarly, in an emergency call for Police or Ambulance --- the caller might be a stranger to the town who let us say has had a serious motor accident while passing through at 2 o'clock in the morning with nobody about. He doesn't even know for a start what town he is in or that the Police Station is in the next town five miles away, and the ambulance has to be called from another town altogether.

 "He has to ring from a slot telephone and finds that he just doesn't happen to have two pence in his pocket. When he overcomes all these difficulties and dials the number he finds it engaged.

 "Perhaps you think I exaggerate, but all these upsets are possible and any one of them occurring at just the wrong time could be tragic. I could in fact quote quite a few more possible troubles.

 "One is that on a busy exchange, whether automatic or manual, calls are handled as far as possible in their order of arrival. If an emergency call comes up during a busy period it is in no way identified as anything special and is dealt with in turn, which may mean a vital delay of a few seconds or even more."

 Mr Burns graphically tells it as it was 50 years ago, and it is easy to see why a better way of doing things was becoming urgent.

 When the 111 trial began, there was one telephone to every four people in Masterton and Carterton. That was considered a very high density!

 Installing 111 in the Masterton and Carterton exchanges cost the Post and Telegraph Department about 300 pounds. Fire, Ambulance and Police carried the installation costs of direct lines, which added up to 3 or 4 pounds for each service, plus rental costs of 10 pounds a year. Red telephones --- to receive 111 calls in fire, ambulance and police stations --- were supplied free of charge.

 Five months after the trial started, the number of calls had fallen from an average of about five a day to three a day. Two of those tended to be genuine emergencies and the other was not --- a problem that is still with us, and probably always will be to some extent or other.

 I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the thousands of people who have been involved in the 111 service over 50 years, particularly the emergency services represented here this morning.

 Answering and responding to 111 calls has always been a tough and often hazardous job, and there was never a better illustration of that than April’s tragic coolstore fire in Waikato. The fire fighters who responded to that fire were acting in the highest traditions of emergency personnel in this country.

 I also want to pay tribute to the call-takers themselves. I have sat and watched them at work, and marvelled at their composure and professionalism, and their ability to keep so many balls in the air at the same time. Every week I receive a report on key performance indicators from across the Police communications centres. Last week a staggering 12,909 111 calls were received. And 97 percent of those calls were answered within 10 seconds! 

 Attention sometimes focuses on the very occasional thing that goes wrong, but we should have great pride in our communications centre staff. They sometimes work in a thankless or even hostile environment, but the work they do is critical to the services’ successes. When you watch them at work, it is not difficult to work out why the 111 service has served New Zealanders so very well for 50 years.

 On behalf of the many New Zealanders who turn to you for help every year, I want to thank everyone involved in 111. You can be proud of what you do. I certainly am very proud of you. Thank you again for inviting me to join you today.

  • Annette King
  • Police