999, 111, 101, 112? Emergency numbers you must know

Long gone are the days when just 999 was for the emergency services. Now there is a whole host of numbers we can use to summon help. But which is which, and when should we use them?

999 – The main emergency number

This is the emergency number for police, ambulance, fire brigade, coastguard, cliff rescue, mountain rescue, cave rescue, etc. Note the important word ‘EMERGENCY'. This number should be used only when urgent attendance by the emergency services is required – for example someone is seriously ill or injured, or a crime is in progress. Calls are free, and 999 can be dialled from a locked mobile phone.

112 – The other emergency number

This operates exactly the same as 999 and directs you to exactly the same emergency call centre. The important thing about 112 is that it will work on a mobile phone anywhere in the world. So on your next foreign holiday, you don't need to make a note of the emergency number for the country you visit; you just need 112. Incidentally, a EU requirement is that emergency call centres must provide a translations service.

In the UK, 112 also works on landline phones, but I can't say whether that is the case in other countries.

Calls are free and 112 can also be dialled from locked mobile phone.

101 – The non-emergency number for the police

Use 101 when you want to contact the police, but it's not an emergency – i.e. an immediate response is not necessary and/or will not be serve any purpose.

For example, your car has been stolen, your property has been damaged, your home has been broken into.

A general rule is "if the crime is not currently in progress, use 101." Yes, we would love an immediate response, but the police have to concentrate their emergency resources on where the criminals are now, not where they were two hours ago.

101 can also be used to give information about a crime committed, or to contact the police with a general enquiry.

Calls are charged at a flat rate of 15 pence per call.

You should always call 999 when it is an emergency, such as when a crime is in progress, someone suspected of a crime is nearby, when there is danger to life or when violence is being used or threatened

111 – The non-emergency medical number

This is available nationwide and replaced and expanded on the former NHS Direct service. Use this for illnesses and minor injuries where life isn't threatened, but you would like some advice on what to do next.

Calls to 111 are free.

What if I need multiple emergency services?

If you need more than one emergency service, you only have to call one – and ask them to contact the others (they may ask you "do you require other services" and, depending on the incident, other services may be sent anyway).

A tip I was given recently is that if the incident is a fire, or some other type of dangerous environment, ask for the Fire and Rescue Service first – they will need to make it safe before any of the other emergency services can do anything.

And finally, a few notes about calling the emergency services from a mobile phone.

Remember that calls to 999/112 are free.

They can also be made on a locked handset (don't set your lock code to a number that starts with either 999 or 112 – you'll never unlock it again!)

If you have no signal on your phone, you may still be able to make an emergency call. The phone will use any available network, not just your one. That's why some phones show "emergency calls only" sometimes – there is no signal from your phone's provider, but there is a signal from another one.

If possible call the emergency services from a landline rather than a mobile phone.

A landline can be more easily traced (because it is attached to the end of a wire). Also, if you are near a county border, your mobile phone signal might be picked up by a mast in the next county and routed to that county's emergency control room. Don't worry – they will still help you; however there might be a delay while your call is relayed back to your home county.

If calling from a motorway, the Highway Code advice is to use the roadside phones.

The phones are never more than a mile apart, and the roadside markers (every 100 metres) will tell you in which directions is the nearest one. Incidentally, calling the emergency services is an occasion when it is not illegal to use a mobile phone while driving. However, it is still probably safer to find somewhere safe to park before making the call.