How UK Emergency Services Have Evolved Over The Centuries

Providing emergency and often lifesaving care to those living in the UK who have met with an accident, are suffering from an acute illness, not to mention those who need to report a fire or a crime, our emergency services are a much loved and desperately needed British institution. 

With emergency care predominantly being provided free of charge by four NHS’s (National Health Service) of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to all legitimate UK residents, it can be easy, however, to take the system for granted. Before its inception and the arrival of modern vehicles and updated medical treatments, receiving medical care in an emergency, was nowhere near as straightforward, effective or efficient as it is today. And for those needing emergency help from the fire brigade or police service, many died in fires that would easily have been distinguished today with modern firefighting equipment, while others had to suffer intolerable crimes as the officers simply couldn’t reach the scene quickly enough. 

Thankfully, with modern medicine advancing as quickly as it is, and technology hot on its heels (including the use of a two way ambulance radio in every vehicle), the last two centuries have seen emergency care in the UK come along in leaps and bounds. 

Continually evolving, the UKs three dominant emergency services of Police, Fire, and Ambulance, weren’t all created at the same time, despite what you may be inclined to think, and you might be just as surprised to know that the ambulance service is the most recently created of them all. While the history of the ambulance as a mode of transport dates back to 900 AD, they were of course nothing like the modern vehicles we’re blessed with today, each equipped with radios and a whole host of modern medical gadgets and machines to help save the lives of patients.

Let’s look at how each of the UKs main emergency services has evolved over the centuries:

Fire Service

As the oldest emergency service, the fire service’s roots can be traced as far back as the 19th century and the HM Coastguard. Once the responsibility of volunteers within a parish and private insurance companies, firefighting before the 1820s was a very different thing. Following a huge fire in Edinburgh in 1824, a man named James Braidwood created a municipal fire service – the UKs first – with 10 independent brigades coming together in 1833, putting an end to firefighters from private insurance firms.  

Following his death in 1861 – in which a wall at a street fire tragically collapsed, killing him – the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was created in 1866 by the British Government. Funded by the public, it paved the way for the Fire and Rescue Service currently in use. 

Now provided by more than fifty agencies throughout the UK, while the terms fire service and fire brigade are still widely used, they are now known officially as the FRS, standing for Fire and Rescue Service. 

Police Service

With its origins as far back as the Middle Ages, law enforcement has been around for many centuries, but modern policing wasn’t established until much later, in the eighteenth century. 

Before the latter part of the nineteenth century, the police force in the UK was run by volunteers, in much the same way as the Fire Brigade was. Then, in 1829, the Metropolitan Police Service was established by Sir Robert Peel, to help solve and prevent crimes among the 1 and a half million strong population. As the years progressed, the introduction of legislation has helped to create the modern police force we know today, and since the 1940’s, every police force across the country has been modernized and merged with one another. 

Ambulance service

While the history of the ambulance can be traced back to 900AD – where hammocks were used to help carry patients to primitive medical facilities with the help of horses – the ambulance service as we know it in the UK today, was the most recently established of all the emergency services, coming to fruition in the late nineteenth century. 

Motorized vehicles provided medical transportation during World War II, and were the precursors of modern-day ambulances as we know them now.  

Before the national ambulance service was implemented, firefighters and the police were largely responsible for transporting patients to hospitals, and without first aid training, you can imagine how many problems this presented. While such training was made mandatory for the police and firefighters in 1925, it wasn’t until 1948 that the ambulance service was formed in the UK; something that was heavily backed by the government and their decision to provide all UK patients with free healthcare. 

Fortunately nowadays, with calls made to the ambulance service in the UK having risen exponentially over the last couple of decades, we have state-of-the-art ambulances fully kitted out with all the latest lifesaving equipment and two-way radio to aid communication between paramedics and other forces. 


Introduced in 1937 following a tragic housefire that claimed the lives of five women two years earlier, the 999 emergency telephone number was to provide those in need of urgent assistance, with a dedicated number with which they could request emergency help from the fire service, paramedics or the police. This move had been prompted not just by the deaths of the five women, but by the inability of the neighbor who reported the fire to be able to get through to the Fire Brigade after a phone exchange queue. As a result, the emergency response team didn’t reach the scene in time to save the women’s lives, and an inquiry was then launched by the government. 

Automated in 1976, this enabled the 999 service to be rolled out across the entire country, and in 1986, the service was made operable for those owning mobile phones. 

Emergency services may be taken for granted by many born in the 21st century, but you only have to look back less than a century to imagine what life would have been like before these services were established formally and given the government backing they so desperately needed. Perhaps the next time you receive free medical care or justice for a crime committed against you or your property, you’ll stop and take a moment to appreciate our UK emergency services, and what they have done for our country over the years. 

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