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One night of some months ago I realized there were some burglars in the apartment below mine. As an Italian living in Germany, I didn't know the number to call the police, but I knew that in all Europe there's a common number for emergencies, 112, and I was confident it was enough. I dialled it and started to explain what had happened. Some seconds later, I was interrupted: "In this case you need the police. This is the fire brigade. Please call 110." They didn't even offer to transfer the call themselves. Maybe I could have asked for that, but I didn't think about it. So I just hung up and dialled 110, and at last I was able to talk to the police.

Some months later I saw a fire in the building in front of mine (apparently I live in a place where you can't get bored), and I called the fire brigade. I dialled 112 and spoke with them. It was the right number.

So, it seems to me that 112 isn't really working as expected: it's just the number of the fire brigade, full stop. But as far as I can tell, this shouldn't be the case. According to the official website of the European Commission,

  • You can call 112 from fixed and mobile phones to contact any emergency service: an ambulance, the fire brigade or the police.

  • A specially trained operator will answer any 112 call. The operator will either deal with the request directly or transfer the call to the most appropriate emergency service depending on the national organisation of emergency services.

Then, according to another page on the same site,

112 calls must be appropriately answered and handled, irrespective of whether other emergency numbers exist in a specific country;

The European Commission ensures that European rules on 112 are correctly applied in the European Union and has launched 17 infringement proceedings against Member States that have not complied with the relevant requirements of EU law. All cases are now closed following corrective measures in the countries concerned.

It seems to me that calling 112 should have been enough. But there's even more!
Wikipedia says this about 112:

112 is a part of the GSM standard and all GSM-compatible telephone handsets are able to dial 112 even when locked or with no SIM card present.

But then, again the site of the European Commission, on another page specific to Germany, says:

It is not possible to call 112 from a mobile phone without a SIM card.

So, questions:

  1. Why wasn't my call properly dealt with? Calling 112 made me lose around 30 seconds, maybe more. In an emergency this could make a huge difference. Why did it happen? Isn't this a violation of European rules? Is it normal? Has anyone had similar experiences?

  2. I recently bought a new phone, but I'm still keeping my old one, without a SIM card. Would I be able to use it to call 112, as per the GSM standard, or not?

  3. When I called 112 I used my Italian SIM card. Then, when they told me to call 110, I thought that being a "non standard" number there could have been problems, and I picked up my German phone and used that. If I had used my Italian number again, would it have worked?

Regarding 2) and 3), unfortunately calling 112 or 110 if there's no emergency is a crime, otherwise I would just test it.

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    Usually the 112 operators will directly transfer you to the police command centers, if they recognize that the call is about a police emergency. I don't know the reasons why it didn't work in your case, maybe the operator was overloaded etc. – dunni Jan 19 '17 at 2:40
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    'Should' and 'Is' are two different things. Not all 'specially trained' operators remember their training... – Aganju Jan 19 '17 at 3:06
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    112 does work. Though as Aganju said - the operator may be the problem. 112 is a 'Notruf' and Fire brigade. Notruf should be understood as ANY kind of emergency, and in your case the operator was actually obligated to either put you through to the police or to take your report and notify them himself. It's a bother but you could write a complaint about him. – Daniel M. Jan 19 '17 at 8:49
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – RoflcoptrException Jan 23 '17 at 9:24
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  1. Difficult to say. The 112 emergency dispatcher should be able to connect you with the police, even if you also can call the police directly on the number 110. Perhaps the operator did not consider a break-in in an appartment urgent enough to do the job for you.

  2. Yes, it violates the GSM standard, but calling emergency services in Germany from a cell phone requires an active SIM card. The reason was to prevent hoax calls from inactive, and therefore unidentifiable cellphones.

  3. You could also have dialled 110 with your Italian SIM card.

There are a few differences between dialling 110 and 112 from a cell phone, but they are in most situations not relevant:

  • When you dial 110, the call is basically treated as a regular phone call. Your phone must be registered on a supported network and the cell you are connected to must have capacity to handle an additional call. The call will hence only go through if you are within coverage of your home network, or a network you may roam on and the cell capacity is not exhausted.

  • When you dial 112, the call is already at the initial signalling level treated as an emergency call. The cell phone will try to connect through any available provider, even if you are regularly not allowed to use that provider's network. The cell phone will use a priority procedure when setting up the call and if the cell capacity is exhausted, other calls will be dropped by the network to 'give room' for your emergency call.

  • I was told that calling 112 without a SIM card was disabled because people would find phones and then call 112 in an attempt to locate the owner. But that would also classify as a hoax call, so … ;) – Jan Jan 19 '17 at 13:16
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    About the (in)ability to call 112 without a SIM card: the Italian page on Wikipedia reports that "To prevent abuse, in some countries like Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Romania, Slovenia and Switzerland, the emergency number 112 can't be called from a phone without a working SIM card." Feel free to edit this into your answer if you want! – Fabio Turati Jan 20 '17 at 1:39
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    But that would definitely mean that 110 is more or less "useless" because it's not even an actual emergency call, right? When in doubt, use 112 and if they won't help you demand they patch you through to whatever service you need? – F.P Jan 20 '17 at 7:29
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    I heavily disagree with the assessment that the differences “are in most situations not relevant”. They are very relevant when you are in an area with weak coverage, or when there is a special event where lots of people are trying to do phone calls (e.g. in the first minutes of the new year, when everyone calls their friends/relatives). – chirlu Jan 20 '17 at 11:53
  • @chirlu As I also wrote in my answer, the differences are indeed relevant when you have poor coverage or the network is congested (no need to repeat that as if I didn't understand it), but in most situations you do simply have coverage and the network is not congested. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Jan 21 '17 at 16:52
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Yes, 112 works quite well in Germany, but there are differences to other countries.

There are two main emergency numbers in Germany.

The Police (Polizei)

To call the police, dial 110. It's usually answered by a switchboard that is in the area of where you are, by someone who is with the police. In large cities they have their own switchboard. You don't need to say I'm in Berlin. You can just say I'm in Kreuzberg. But if you are calling while you're driving on the Autobahn somewhere between towns, you'll end up in a regional one, and they will ask between what towns, which road, what section and direction of the road and so on. (Only call hands-free while driving, calling and driving is not allowed in Germany and gets expensive).

When not to call

Don't call 110 if you want to just talk to the police without an emergency. If your wallet got stolen and you want to report that, go to the police instead, or call the normal local phone number of a police station. If you think your car got stolen and you are in Hamburg or Berlin, also don't call 110, but google for Umsetzung first, as it's possible your car was in the way and the Police had it moved to a different location.

The emergency hotline

The number for 112 on the other hand is for both medical emergencies (Krankenwagen) and for the fire fighters, called Feuerwehr in Germany. So if you need an ambulance, you call 112. If there is a fire, you call 112. If you see oil on the street, smell gas and think there is a leak, your basement is full of water, or if you witness a car accident, you call 112. That number has its own regional switchboard. They are located in a regional command center that's also usually where units are dispatched from. Here's a bit of German information about the one in Hannover. They also dispatch the Katastrophenschutz, which helps with floods and things like that.

Note that for the car accident, the 112 dispatch will notify the police, so always call 112 first when people are injured, even if there is road traffic or crime involved.

When not to call

Don't call 112 if you want to plan an event (like a company football game or a publicly accessible party) where the law requires you to have paramedics present or the firefighter to be made aware first.

How to call

Both of these emergency numbers have a protocol you should follow when you call. Those are referred to and taught to kids in school as the five W-Questions, because all of them start with a W in German.

  • Where did it happen?
  • What happened?
  • How many people are involved/injured?
  • What kind of damage/injury?
  • Who is calling?

Never hang up when you call them. Always wait until they end the call, because they might have additional questions.

It's possible that you get routed to the police if you call 112 if there is no local firefighters dispatch available. The operator will identify clearly where you ended up.

There is also a ton of information in German in the Wikipedia page about Notruf.

Note that the emergency hotline can be busy. Depending on where you are, they might only have one person operating the phone. In Berlin it frequently happens that at 110 you first reach an on hold queue before someone talks to you. So please only call when there really is an emergency.


A similar looking number is the 115. It's not an emergency number, but it has the same format. It's not special in any kind, and in fact is just a local call. It connects you to the municipal government's service hotline, so you can make appointments for registering a residential address in a new town or things like that. It's relevant for expats, but not really if you travel.

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    The most important W is Waiting for questions the operator may still have (i.e. don’t hang up). On the other side, I think who is not considered as important. – Jan Jan 19 '17 at 13:13
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    "if your cat needs to be rescued from a tree, you call 112", no, you don't. German Feuerwehr will not come to rescue your cat in such a case and you may even get legal problems if the operator is having a bad day. Save the line for a real emergency! – sigy Jan 19 '17 at 14:22
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    Wait—if you call an emergency number while driving to report an accident that happened just seconds earlier and you are not using hands-free calling, you can get fined? In Canada (at least), there are special exceptions to distracted driving laws for calling emergency (911). If you call 911 to report a suspected drunk driver, they will often ask you to follow them if you feel safe until police arrive, etc. knowing full well that you are using a cell phone. – user42547 Jan 19 '17 at 20:03
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    @FighterJet If you drive past an accident where it looks as if emergency services are needed and you call emergency services while still driving, you are more likely to be fined for not stopping and providing aid at the accident scene. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Jan 19 '17 at 22:29
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    "112 works quite well in Germany, but there are differences to other countries." so, no, it does not work quite well. 112 is supposed to be a European standardized emergency number, not whatever a country wants to use it for. – njzk2 Jan 20 '17 at 3:32
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Speaking as a (retired) mobile network planner, "dialling" 112 on a mobile with or without a SIM should not actually "dial". It invokes the emergency communications service (which is independent of normal call handling). (I may have used the incorrect term for the service, I would have to go back to my standards to check.)

In other countries, e.g. Australia, where I live, phones are required by law to recognise the local emergency number "000" and invoke the emergency communications service, and similar rules are in place in most jurisdictions, although 112 is always recognised (on GSM phones) and I implemented it on CDMA.

What actually happens when you invoke the emergency communications service is dependent on the local administration.

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(More a comment than an answer):

I've looked at the German Wikipedia entry wrt. the emergency numbers:

It's enlightening that 112 is both the European emergency number (since 1991) and in Germany it is also the emergency number for the fire brigade and the ambulance, historically (since 1973).

The police historically has used 110 (as explained in other answers).

I would assume therefore that, in Germany, 112 gets a lot more fire+medical traffic than the police one and is a possible explanation for the seeming incompetence of the operator - many locals would call 112 only for the fire and ambulance, and it's indistinguishable whether you intended the (historic) 112 or the international 112 :-)

Quite some other European countries have completely disjoint police/fire/medical emergency numbers vs. the international 112.

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    I would say the average non-travelling German doesn't know there is an international 112. We learn 110 for police, 112 for firefighters and ambulance. We know 911 from TV. I think in the UK it's 999 (didn't check now), and if that's wrong I'm happy I never needed it while I was there. – simbabque Jan 19 '17 at 22:42
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    @simbabque - You can dial either 999 or 112 in the UK. 999 is what we grew up with, but due to the EU rules 112 now does the same thing. Hopefully we'll retain that when we leave the EU. – AndyT Jan 20 '17 at 11:27
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    @PeriataBreatta 999 seems to be - historically - an unusually bad choice: Back in the days of pulse-dialing, 999 would take almost 7 times as long as 112 to complete dialing ... – Hagen von Eitzen Jan 20 '17 at 22:20
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    @HagenvonEitzen: Denmark used to have 000 which is even slower. (I'm not sure, but I can imagine using long digits might have been a feature for pulse dialing: it's harder to call accidentally). – Henning Makholm Jan 21 '17 at 10:29
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    @HenningMakholm WP notes that fewer accidental calls was a feature (111 would be possible from random line-noise), but mainly that you could dial it in the dark without seeing the dial, which you couldn't do easily for (eg) 112 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/999_(emergency_telephone_number)#History – Andrew Jan 21 '17 at 11:38
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As far as I remember (but I can't find a source right now), this lack of interconnection between the emergency phone systems of the fire brigade and police is intentional. Some reasons for this are:

  • It can make it easier for people to call for medical help without having the police know about it (for example, if illicit substances are involved).

  • It frees up the operator and telephone lines, by not having to handle the transfer.

It does not indicate a lack of training or motivation on the operator's part.

This policy seems to violate (albeit slightly) EU regulations, similarly to the requirement to have a SIM card when calling 112.

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    This seems a very bad idea to me (no offense intended, of course! I know that you are just reporting this, and not necessarily supporting it). And anyway, even if this was the reasoning behind the original German system, now there's a European law and Germany has to comply. Anyway, thanks for sharing this! – Fabio Turati Jan 20 '17 at 2:09
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    I think you can make an argument for both cases, it does not seem obvious which policy (ie., risking that someone does not call an ambulance due to police prosecution vs. risking that someone loses 30 seconds by calling the wrong number) is better. I just wanted to point out that this seems to be official policy, not just a bad day of the operator ;-) – mdd Jan 20 '17 at 3:04
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    I'm sorry, but this answer is as wrong as it could be. There IS a connection between the two, and the operator IS obliged to put you through. – Daniel M. Jan 20 '17 at 10:36
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    @DanielM. source please – mdd Jan 20 '17 at 15:26
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    @mdiener - that's not a guideline, the book they publish contains the results of a survey of emergency number operators. It describes practice, not theory. They're quite clear that a SIM is required, but don't suggest there's any difficulty contacting the police via the number. – Periata Breatta Jan 22 '17 at 6:34
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Mobile phones without SIM cards will let you dial any of a variety of standard emergency numbers, including 999, 911, 112, 000, and probably others. If you try to dial another number, it brings up an error message. In addition, you can dial from a locked handset; there is an option to enter the security code or declare an emergency. If you hit emergency, presumably it tries the standard emergency numbers for you in sequence. Source: Spare mobile phone without a SIM card, that I happened to have handy.

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    In the other answers is mentioned that this does not work in Germany. – Willeke Jan 22 '17 at 9:10
  • Mobile phones don't necessarily know which country they're in. If they're in a place where there's no emergency number, or no mobile service, then it won't produce a result, but it'll still dial. A search says it also doesn't work in the UK, which I've proven false. – Robin Hodson Jan 23 '17 at 13:13

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