If you need the police but can’t talk, dial 999 from a mobile, then 55 when prompted and don’t hang up

14 April 2020
What was claimed

If you are in the UK and under coronavirus lockdown with an abusive partner dial 999, wait to be connected, press 55 & hang up.

Our verdict

You will only be prompted to press 55 on a silent call from a mobile. And you should not hang up after typing 55. You should try and cough, tap the handset or whisper to communicate on an emergency call if possible.

We’ve seen a number of tweets in recent days from journalists, charities and politicians which recommend that people calling the police due to domestic abuse who cannot speak on the phone as they’re in lockdown with their abuser should call 999, dial 55 when someone answers and then hang up.

This is similar to claims we’ve come across in the past which said that dialling 55 would allow the police to track your location.

Neither of these are correct. Typing 55 on a 999 call from a mobile when prompted is a way to alert the automated system that you need police assistance. You should not hang up as soon as you do this though.

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What happens if you can’t speak on a 999 call?

If you need to call 999 for any reason the first person you will speak to is a BT operator—they will direct your call to the relevant emergency service. 

In some circumstances it may not be possible or safe for you to speak to the operator. Your call should still be transferred to the police by the operator if they hear suspicious noises, and you can also cough, tap the handset or make a noise to alert them.  

If the call is silent and done from a mobile phone (not a landline), it will be forwarded to an automated system called “Silent Solution”.  An automated voice asks the caller to press 55 if they need police assistance. You can listen to what happens on one of these calls here.

This will also direct the call to a police call handler. The Independent Office for Police Conduct, which ran a campaign about Silent Solution last year, told us that people should not dial 55 then hang up.

It said: “The Silent Solution system is used to filter out the many accidental or hoax 999 calls every day. If you press 55, when prompted, you are making it known it is a genuine emergency but you cannot speak. The BT call handler will then transfer you to the police.” 

The police will then ask a series of questions to try and get some more details about the situation. The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) told us that “Call handlers are highly trained to seek details from callers who may not be in a position to speak and so can use methods like tapping the handset or asking questions requiring only a yes or no answer.”

As we’ve said before, dialling 55 doesn’t necessarily allow the police to determine your location. The NPCC also said “Police will not always send officers to silent calls so it is important for callers to try and provide as much information as they can – in any way they can.”

Why does the automated system not apply to landlines?

Silent Solution is not used on calls from landlines as, according to the NPCC, “it’s less likely that 999 calls are made by accident from landlines”.

The Independent Office of Police Conduct says that on calls from landlines: “if there is no request for an emergency, the caller does not answer questions, and only background noise can be heard and BT operators cannot decide whether an emergency service is needed” then they will transfer the call to the police. 

The guidance also says that if for any reason you disconnect the call on a landline by hanging up you have 45 seconds to pick it up again and the call will resume. If this happens (you hang up and pick up again within 45 seconds) the BT call handler will also forward the call to the police.

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