A link in the chain
One week ago today nine families were robbed of their loved ones when a police helicopter plummeted from the sky and smashed through the roof of the Clutha bar in Glasgow, killing nine people and injuring others.
The randomness of the shocking event stopped people in their tracks, and what was essentially for all those involved a deeply personal tragedy, led to an outpouring of grief and shock and also a pledge of support on a far wider scale.
As the event unfolded in my home city of Glasgow, like many, I was humbled by the heroism and selflessness of the ordinary citizens who ran towards the crash scene not away from it, forming a human chain of rescuers. I was also moved by the passion and professionalism of the emergency services who worked tirelessly to save those who could be saved and to retrieve the remains of those who could not be saved.
It took less than one minute for the first emergency services to arrive on the scene, marking the start of painstaking work by police, paramedics and fire crews. At such times, everyone in the chain of command from the officers in charge to the teams manning emergency calls and casualty helplines, must pull together and focus on doing their bit to the very best of their ability.
Speed of response in such a situation is critical, and the awful events of last week served as a reminder of the vital role emergency phone lines play in getting help to those who need it, fast. We work with many police forces, including Police Scotland, and also NHS24, and so we have some understanding of the nature of their operations and their unwavering commitment to maintaining the highest standards at all times.
It was, in fact, a tragic event that occurred in London 76 years ago that led to the forming of the 999 emergency call service, following the deaths of five women at the home of a surgeon in London’s Wimpole Street. The tragedy led to a committee looking devising a system that would enable phone operators to easily identify emergency calls.
In June 1937, the 999 service became the world’s first emergency service - those digits were chosen because they were easy to remember and easy to find, even in the dark, on the old manual phone dial. It was almost the 111 service until it was discovered that wires moving together in the wind could be transmitted as the equivalent of a 111 call.
The service began operating in London in 1937 with red lights and klaxons sounding to alert phone operators to emergency calls and one year later Glasgow became the second city to have the service which was then extended to all major towns and cities by 1948.
From that day to the present, the 999 service has been ably run by BT, whose staff answer more than 98% of the 31 million calls they receive each year within five seconds.
Operating from seven sites in the UK, including one in Glasgow, it is without a doubt one of the most respected and admired emergency services in the world. It became a template for other countries such as the United States which introduced its own 911 nationwide emergency service more than 30 years later in 1968
The peak time for calls to the 999 service is the early hours of New Year’s Day and as we prepare for Christmas and New Year, it is fitting to remember the people whose lives were cut short last week and their families.
In the midst of their suffering, we should also give thanks for the professionalism and dedication of the emergency services - those present at the harrowing scene and also those providing support behind the scenes as the voices of calm at the end of a phone line - their unstinting devotion to doing their duty forms an important link in the chain.