'Help, I've lost my trousers': 999 service marks its 70th birthday

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The man who dialled 999 in Birmingham in the early hours of the morning was upset - very upset. He was looking to the emergency services for immediate help. His problem? He had lost his trousers.

That was one of four memorably idiotic calls taken by telephone operators in the West Midlands in the space of just a few hours as Friday night revellers made their way home - at a time when the services were already loaded with genuine emergencies. They are examples of the growing problem of unnecessary or bogus calls that waste telephone operators' time.

Today, the colours above London's famous BT Tower will change to blue and white, simulating an ambulance's flashing light, in tribute to a service that is now 70 years old. It handles about 336,000 genuine emergencies a week, and has saved an uncounted number of lives - but it also has to deal with about 224,000 calls that should never have been made.

A large number of those now come from children using mobile phones. Volunteers from BT are arranging to visit schools to explain the 999 system and warn about the consequences of misusing it.

"Hoax calls to 999 cause serious problems for the emergency services and have potentially life-threatening consequences, reducing the speed of response to real emergencies. BT works closely with the emergency services to reduce these calls," said Nigel Stagg, the managing director of BT Enterprises.

On the same evening in the Birmingham area, a man rang in saying that he could not walk. Asked if he knew the cause, he said he had been dancing for hours and his legs were tired out. A teenager dialled 999 because he had toothache. Another man phoned in because of a cut finger. The ambulance crew confirmed when they got to him that he had, indeed, cut his finger - two days earlier.

The first 999 service went into operation in London on 30 June 1937, after a committee had investigated a disaster at a doctor's surgery in Wimpole Street, Belgravia, in which five women were burnt to death. A neighbour had dialled 0 to alert the local telephone exchange, but the call was held in the queue as the operator had no way of telling that it was urgent.

There were 1,336 calls on the new 999 number in the first week of July 1937, of which 1,073 were genuine, 171 were from callers who wanted to get straight through the operator, and 91 were practical jokes - proving, sadly, that the problem of pointless calls is as old as the service itself.

Their number leapt about six years ago, after it became possible to call 999 on a mobile phone, vastly increasing the risk of unintended calls. In one case, the operator could hear only voices in the background and the sound of rushing water. Fearing that someone was drowning, she connected the call to the police, who also thought it was something serious. Then she heard a man's puzzled voice on the line saying hello. He had heard voices coming out of the toilet. He discovered he had dropped his mobile into the pan.

Other calls, made deliberately, leave the mind boggling at the petty self-obsession of the callers. There was the 31-year-old who dialled 999 because she had sniffed deodorant by accident; a man who expected the police to take him home because he had run out of cash; a man from Suffolk who summoned an ambulance crew to remove a dead rat from his loft; a 22-year-old woman who had a blackhead which would not stop bleeding after she had squeezed it; a model who called out Gloucestershire Ambulance Service when she broke her fingernail; and a man who rang up to ask how much it would cost to hire an ambulance to take him to a private hospital.

One woman rang for an ambulance to help a man who had had a nasty fall, who turned out to be a character in that week's episode of Emmerdale.

There is the obvious risk that a genuine emergency could go unheeded. Julia Pemberton, who had been threatened by her estranged husband, was promised that if she ever dialled 999, even without speaking, someone would be round in 10 minutes. In fact, she was kept on the telephone for 16 minutes while her ex-husband went on the rampage, killing her son and hunting for her. An operator listened helplessly as she was shot dead.