Hannah Foster was murdered after her 999 call was judged to be accidental and cut off. But how do police decide if an emergency call is a misdial or a desperate last plea for help?
By Mario Cacciottolo
The number 999 is a lifeline for those in distress. Probably every adult knows its purpose and, when faced with an emergency, even toddlers have been able to dial these crucial three digits.
But, as the case of murdered teenager Hannah Foster demonstrates, there are times when emergency calls can be cut off by the operator at the other end.
Hannah Foster's call to the emergency services was cut off
When Hannah was abducted in March 2003, she was quick-witted enough to surreptitiously make a 999 call on her mobile. Unable to speak into the phone, she nevertheless hoped the operator would become suspicious of the conversation she was having with her abductor, Maninder Pal Singh Kohli.
Unfortunately, Hannah's attempts failed to navigate a call handling system called Silent Solutions, which deals with silent calls made to the 999 number, and she was cut off moments later.
Kohli went on to rape and murder her, and has now been jailed for life following a trial at Winchester Crown Court.
Accidental 999 calls happen all the time, but how do operators know when a silent call can actually be a real call for help?
BT receives 30 million emergency calls a year - either to 999 or 112, the European emergency services number, which works in all European Union countries. There are strict procedures for handling such calls, set out in a code of practice between telecoms operators and the emergency services.
Calls made to these numbers usually result in an emergency authority (EA) - fire, police, ambulance - request being made, where someone asks the operator for assistance.
HISTORY OF 999
999 is world's oldest emergency call service
Launched in 1937 after five women died in London surgery fire
Initially red lamp turned on and klaxon siren went off to alert operators went call came in
999 chosen over 111 for technical reasons - telegraph wires rubbed together in wind transmitted equivalent of 111 call
First 999 mobile call made in 1986
But several million calls a year do not follow this pattern, and the emergency number is dialled but no-one actually speaks to make a request. This is what happened in Hannah's case.
The code of practice says in the "overwhelming majority of cases" these calls are customer misdials, such as a phone keypad activated in a bag or pocket, or even children playing. But it acknowledges "there is always a possibility of it being a genuine caller who cannot speak". It also says "very large numbers" of accidental 999/112 calls are received from mobile phones.
In 2001 the Metropolitan Police introduced a country-wide system called Silent Solutions for dealing with the growing number of silent accidental 999 calls. When a call is made, operators from police forces around the UK attempt to obtain a response by asking a series of questions.
For example, they might ask "which service is required?" and "if you cannot speak but need help please tap the handset screen".
But when nothing apart from general noise can be heard, and there is no speech, it is thought there is a "negligible chance" of the call being genuine. The operator can then end the call.
Where there is no response but there are background voices, the code of practice says the operator cannot decide whether an Emergency Authority request is needed from the police.
In cases such as these, the call is then connected to an automated police voice response system at the Met's Central Communication Command, which asks the caller to press five twice if help is required. If 5-5 is pressed, an immediate connection with the police is made.
And in any cases where suspicious noises are heard, the operator can override all these procedures and simply connect the call directly to a police emergency authority control room.
"Most silent accidental 999 calls contain background noise, which is usually very difficult to hear or understand," says a spokesman for the Met. "It was only after Hannah's 999 call was forensically examined during the subsequent investigation when the audio had been expertly enhanced that it was possible to capture the voice of her abductor and the conversation they had."
Silent calls are now common. Between July 2001, when the Silent Solutions system was introduced, and September 2008, there have been more than 40 million such calls - averaging about 5.5 million a year. The overwhelming majority of these are unintended 999 calls, says a Met spokesman.
5.5m silent 999 calls a year
47,000 of those press '55' to indicate help needed
Clear suspicious noise also means call can be routed to police
"Since 2004, on average each year, we have received about 47,000 silent calls during which the caller pressed '55' and therefore indicated they needed an emergency service, which means that only about 0.9% of the silent calls we receive are intentional."
Yet Hannah's tragic case is not a one-off. In 2005 Farah Noor Adams was raped and murdered in Glasgow. She had made a number of silent calls when she spotted she was being stalked by her eventual killer. But they too were cut off by operators when she failed to respond.
But there are occasions where silent calls do work. One woman who was attacked at her home in Kensington, London, managed to make a silent 999 call. This led to the police tracing her call and visiting her home, where they captured her assailant. He was eventually convicted in 1991 of rape, possession of a firearm and attempted murder.
And emergency services in some parts of the country now respond to texts sent to 80999. This allows messages to be sent directly to the police control room. The controller then calls for assistance as required from any of the emergency services.
The 80999 number is currently used in the South West, in Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Dorset, Wiltshire, Avon and Somerset and Devon and Cornwall, and can be used at any time.
However, this is provided as a specific access service for people who cannot use voice telephony, and is not considered as an additional service for general contact. Several other police forces already run emergency text services, but they require people to register their details and use a standard 11-digit mobile number.
The Home Office plans to introduce a National Emergency Text number, which will eventually replace these systems.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I appreciate that it's difficult to screen accidental 999 calls, but why is the practice of dialling 80999 not nationwide already? I too am a mum to a beautiful, caring 17-year-old daughter. I constantly nag her to carry her mobile for her own safety and keep it charged and in credit. Please bring in the National Emergency Text number as soon as possible.
Deb, Rainham, Kent
I understand the problems of trying to weed out the very few genuine calls from the many accidental calls. However, in Farah's case, she made a number of silent calls to try and get help. Couldn't a computer system monitor the number of silent calls and if several are made in succession from the same number, police could investigate? These could still be accidental but it would be less likely.
I worked taking 999 calls for two years in Glasgow. When I read about the hoax calls made by international celebrities, my first thought was "what an example". The emergency services have enough to deal with without celebrities turning the hoax call into a national pastime. The more calls dealt with by the emergency services, the more difficult it is to pinpoint "THE" call. I can only say the dedication and effort made by these call centres to ensure valid calls are answered is exceptional and needs more exposure.
Jerry McBride, Saigon, Vietnam
Why not just have a separate number that means "I'm in trouble but cannot speak?" Surely the cost of creating and routing another number, and flagging the difference to an operator on screen would be a tiny percentage of the annual budget for running the emergency services.
Will Shaw, Barnsley
So why hasn't it been publicised that we need to press 999 and then 55 if we are in that sort of dangerous situation? Not rocket science, surely.
What you don't mention is what to do in a situation where there is an emergency and the person can't talk or even obviously use the phone. Dial 999 wait three seconds then press 55? Wait longer to press 55? Do the emergency services monitor repeat silent calls, such as the one from Ms Adams?
Nadine Hengen, Christchurch
Can this not be taught in schools, so that others in a dangerous situation where they are frightened to speak or bring the phone out of their pocket or whatever, can add the 55 to the number and so get an immediate connection to help. Whoever can do this - please!
The emergency services cannot afford to take the chance that help is not really needed. Because of this the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has a policy of a mandatory response to any incomplete call or interrupted one, to a police control room. That one dialling may be the only chance a victim of crime or life-threatening situation has to desperately call for help. Not checking it out is a NON OPTION, in my experience and opinion... (I have over 30 years experience in the emergency services in four different countries as a responder.)
Pat van der Ver, Wallasey, Merseyside
I'm disgusted. I was taught at school, by visiting police, that a silent 999 call would be treated as a police matter and they would be dispatched immediately. This has changed but would anyone in that situation be aware of this? The 999 service is not something to be treated with the same disdain as commercial operators treat their customer support services, and yet this "55" trick seems to come straight from the same hymn book. Basically, it's cheaper. I'm guessing the silent call that worked (back in 1991) was before they introduced this Silent Solutions nonsense. Still, with about 100,000 silent 999 calls per day, a better solution is not clear.
Would the use of an emergency number which doesn't consist of the same three numbers not reduce the number of "dialled by accident in your bag/pocket" calls?
I am not at all surprised at the number of silent calls, since even locked keypads still allow 999 emergency dialling - this is deliberately DESIGNED IN to mobile phones. So even phones with locked keypads may dial emergency services if buttons are accidentally pressed - eg in a pocket.
Draigalban, Edinburgh, Scotland
As it appears that the majority of these calls are from mobile phones, I suggest the following to either eradicate the cause, or prevent the call from going through or being cancelled once activated. Somewhere on the mobile a lock button can be fitted that can only be released by an emergency service officer. The button is pressed and the emergency number dialled. The button is released. That number will now remain open so it can be traced. The line will remain operative until the call is cancelled by an official in attendance. Effectively it cannot be disconnected by anyone else. If an operator tries to disconnect, the emergency number will repeat call. This should dramatically reduce the number of accidental calls - it may even save a life.
Tony Ive, Petersfield, UK
If you are trying to make a surreptitious emergency call, it is unlikely that you will be able to confirm your situation. Couldn't mobiles have a panic button with a suitable cover? To prevent misuse, triggering the alarm could then bar all numbers but 999 and a service number to call off the alarm being dialled.
Neil Turton, Lancaster, England
I had always hoped if I needed it, I could do what Hannah did. In fact my previous handset had an option to call 999 automatically if you played with a fixed pattern of buttons in your pocket. So what are we meant to do? Texting seems an answer, but can the police quickly trace where the caller is if needed?
Home alarm systems have a silent call to police, why not add a digit to alert emergency services that this is a silent call?
Candace, New Jersey, US
There should be enhanced hearing on behalf of the emergency services.
Kevin Smith, Holloway, London