Emergency Services

If you have memories about how things were with Fire, Ambulance or Police services when you were young,
please send them here for inclusion.

Emergency services have made great advances in the past few decades. Some of these were made possible - and some necessary - by advances in telephony and other technologies.


In the late forties and early fifties, magneto telephones were still in use in many towns, and these required the services of an operator. The operator would need to be advised of the emergency service required, Police, Fire or Medical, before ringing the service and switching (or plugging) the lines together. This was slow, but had the advantage that the services were not plagued with false alarms.

Picture of a rotary telephone dialWhen automatic pulse-dialling (or loop-interrupt dialling) arrived, the operators were still retained, and they monitored one centralised number reserved for emergencies. A similar problem remained: enquiry by the operator was necessary before connecting the call to the appropriate service.

Another problem also arose. Pulse-dialling acts by the dial opening and closing the line loop quickly several times, once for the digit one, and ten times for the digit zero. This meant that a zero took ten times as long to transmit as a one, for example. So, why not make the Emergency code 111? Well, if the telephone line (most were aerial) was affected by contact with tree branches, each contact could appear to be a dialled "one" and three spaced "ones" would effectively dial 111. So, in England anyway, it was decided to use 000. There were two reasons for this: a zero was unlikely to be dialled by tree branches, and zero was easy to find in the dark, since it was next to the stop on the dial. Other countries used different numbers, for various reasons. In the U.S. the number became 911.

The digital dial replaced the slower and less-reliable rotary dial Now that tone-dialling, which requires a combination of two different tones to be transmitted for each digit is in use almost universally, the problem of false-dialling is removed. When a button is pressed, two selected tones are sent simultaneously to the receiving equipment, usually the Exchange, and the equipment de-codes these to find the digit dialed.

Fire Service

As a boy, I once lived opposite a fire station in Melbourne. In the yard was a high steel tower with a bell mounted at the top and a rope hanging down. When there was a fire, the duty officer would write on a small blackboard in the station room the location of the fire, then pull the fire-bell rope for a minute or so, alerting the volunteers who lived within earshot, who would race to the fire station. About ten men would select a helmet and fireaxe, and mount the fire engine which would proceed to the fire with its bell jangling to clear the road. Other volunteers would read the location and go there in other vehicles.

Later, sirens were introduced that produced a rising and falling tone, and the sound travelled much further. If the call was cancelled or when no further volunteers were needed, a single rise and fall tone advised those not yet arrived that they were not needed. At one time, we lived at the top of a hill and the siren was on the next hill. When the siren started to wail, our labrador dog, Steve, would sit on his haunches and howl in sympathy for the poor, wounded animal in the distance.

The old horse-drawn fire engine was essential to the safety of its community, 
 and dalmation dogs ensured it always had right-of-way

In the olden days, fire carriages were drawn by horses. Fire brigades often kept one or two dalmation dogs, and when a fire alarm sounded the Dalmatians would run into the street, barking at nearby people to tell them to make way for the fire carriage. Once the carriage was in the street, the Dalmatians would run beside it to the fire. Horses are afraid of fire, and the Dalmatians' presence would distract and comfort the horses as they got closer to the fire. They also guarded the firefighter's belongings, equipment or horses at the site, and helped control rats in firehouses. In later years they rode inside the fire negines, though mostly as a mascot.


The policeman on the beat was well-respected and could be called upon for any emergency

The police car was not much different from normal civilian cars In the cities, Police controlled many of the main road intersections, and patrolled the streets. They were equipped with a baton, handcuffs and a whistle. To catch someone's attention or if they needed assistance, they would blow their whistle. They were supposed to walk at a regulated 4mph when patrolling. It was always instilled in children that the Policeman was their friend if they had a problem of any kind. Police cars were mostly standard vehicles, with maybe some enhancements like heavier springs. Pursuit vehicles and "paddy-wagons" had not been thought of, but later, when cars became faster and criminals began to take advantage of this, the Police followed suit and began using high-performance motors and specialised features for pursuit, though they still retained smaller cars for routine work.

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