“Dial 999 for help!”: The Three-Digit Emergency Number and the Transnational Politics of Welfare Activism, 1937-1979

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Since 1937 calling for help has meant dialing three digits on a telephone. “999”—the emergency telephone number originally devised in London as the call signal for police, fire brigade, or ambulance assistance—has been appropriated as the model of emergency communications in 162 countries to date (with variations in the specific number used, such as 911 in America). In this article, I argue that the emergency number system provides a lens to rethink the relationship between citizens, state, and local communities in the diverse historical and geographical settings of its introduction, taking as case studies the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and New Zealand. The system has enhanced the possibilities for citizens to intervene in rescuing one another from “danger” by enabling them to coordinate the speed and location of state response to an event deemed an emergency. It thereby rests on an idea of citizenship characterized by active and reciprocal surveillance of each other’s behavior, as well as democratized access to medical or other emergency assistance. However, this article suggests that the system has been marked by its uneven distribution in economically deprived communities (conditioned by the commercial imperatives of telephone companies), reinforcing inequalities of access to state services along lines of wealth, class, and race both domestically and internationally. I therefore suggest it compromised the apparatus of “British” social democracy in this era, cultivating new forms of political and consumer activism among social groups demanding access to telephones for emergency assistance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)468-500
JournalJournal of Social History
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 11 Sep 2017


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