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Wairarapa home to ‘111’ trial 60 years go

Masterton Phone Exchange in 1950s. PHOTO/SUPPLIED


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New Zealand’s 111 emergency service has just marked its 60th anniversary – and it all started in Masterton and Carterton.

On the first day of phone line’s trial, the exchanges in the towns received just three “genuine calls”, according to a Times-Age article published at the time.

But there was also a spate of wrong calls to people somehow dialling the wrong number, and faults in the system.

The three genuine calls were for a doctor, police, and the fire service (for a rubbish fire in Carterton).

The service started as a trial in September 1958 before going national before progressively being rolled out nationally.

The new number streamlined emergency calls and sped up response times.

In the beginning, the trial service created some confusion for operators who soon realised they needed to check whether a caller was in Masterton or Carterton as the same street names appeared in both towns.

Masterton Phone Exchange in 1950s. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

According to a Times-Age editorial published on the day of the launch, the new emergency service was “long overdue”.

“A person confronted with such an emergency is often too disturbed or shocked to think clearly, but, if the number ‘111’ is imprinted upon his mind, he will be assured of a speedy connection,” the editorial said.

The writer hoped that the new service would act as a deterrent for intruders knowing police could be called much quicker.

On day one of the trial, some people “tried out” the service by calling and waiting for a reply before hanging up, the Times-Age reported.

One caller asked for the address of a Carterton hotel.

The number 111 was specifically chosen to be similar to Britain’s 999 service, but New Zealand telephones pulsed in reverse to those in the UK.

In the UK, dialling 9 sent nine pulses, while in New Zealand, it was dialling 1 that sent nine pulses.

A number that sent one pulse was not used because of possibility of false calls caused by accidents such as open-wire lines tapping together.

For manual exchanges, there was no need to have an emergency number – all calls went through an operator.

But when exchanges were automised, callers needed to use the number of the emergency service they required or call the toll operator who looked after long-distance calls.

The telephone exchange in Masterton was replaced in 1956, and was the first exchange to have the technology installed for the 111 service.

When a subscriber dialled 111, the call was routed by the automatic exchange onto one of three dedicated lines to the toll switchboard at the Masterton exchange – where an operator would answer.

Dedicated lines connected the toll switchboard to the Masterton police station, fire brigade, and the hospital.

Today, a 111 call is answered by a Spark Emergency Service Operator in either Wellington or Christchurch, then transferred to the required emergency service.

Last year, 2.1 million 111 calls were made —  about 6000 calls every day.

But 30 per cent are “non-genuine” calls – hang-ups, children calling for as pranks, and pocket calls from cellphones.

To celebrate the anniversary, Spark and emergency services has made a video with advice for people calling 111.

As identified in the first trial, the key piece of information all three services need from callers is their location.

“It’s really important callers provide the exact address of the emergency and if they can’t do that, identifying an important landmark is the next best thing,” Fire and Emergency national communication centres manager Gavin Travers said.

It’s important to stay on the line — speaking to an operator on the phone doesn’t delay help, Wellington Free Ambulance communication centre director Kate Jennings said.

Police’s communication centres recently introduced a 111 deaf text service for people with hearing impairment.

Dialling emergency numbers used in other countries, 999 or the United States’ 911, will still connect to 111 service.

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