“Emergency Ambulance. What’s the address of the emergency?” Words that you only hear when things are REALLY bad. Generally if you’re hearing these words it’s because you need help and you need it fast.
I spotted a trending hashtag on Twitter a few days ago which took me right back to my life only a few years back. The #Iam999 hashtag has been created by fictional police force “Bullshire Police” to celebrate the work of Emergency Dispatchers. The story behind the hashtag is quite something – an ambulance service posted an ad for Emergency Medical Dispatchers (999 call handlers) and there were comments along the lines of “they just read from a script” and “that job requires literally no skills”. That couldn’t be further from the truth and the hashtag was created to celebrate those invisible voices who are there at the worst moments in your life – dispatchers.
I used to be one of those invisible voices. Three years ago if you would have dialled 999 from inside the M25 and asked for an ambulance, it might well have been me that you spoke to. It might have been me who reassured you, who gave you first aid instructions and who passed on information to ambulance crews on the road. Then after I was done talking to you, I would hang up, take a deep breath and take the next call. It was quite a job. I very much enjoyed it. You never knew what was coming next, which was exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. Unfortunately I left the job due to PTSD from my assault and associated issues, but I have so many things that I will never forget from my time there.
As much as yes, you do read from a script, that job really is no walk in the park. No one can teach the skills needed to take an emergency call. You can either do it, or you can’t. It takes a certain type of person to be able to read someone’s voice and know how best to respond. It takes a special kind of person to talk to a timewaster and not lose their shit, whilst their colleague next to them is giving CPR instructions down the phone. It takes a special kind of person to be strong on the phone to a mother who has found her baby not breathing and to get the mother to hold it together too at least until the ambulance is there. It takes a special kind of person to work twelve hour rotating shifts and still answer the last call of the morning with the same professionalism as they did with the first call twelve hours before.
During my time as a dispatcher there are a few calls I remember every single detail of. The first one was the first baby cardiac arrest that I took. I can still remember the name of that baby. I can remember the mother’s name and what her voice sounded like. I can remember exactly where they were and what floor they were on. Another was a lady who suffered a second trimester miscarriage. I sat with her on the phone until the ambulance crew were there. I knew her name, but she didn’t know mine and never will. I remember her, though. Her voice, the way she spoke and the way she described what was happening. I remember the confusion of her husband as he tried to keep their older child away from the situation. There was an older lady I spoke to who passed away soon after I spoke to her. I remember her name. I remember how I asked her if she wanted me to stay on the line until after the ambulance arrived and she told me no. I remember the crew calling up and letting us know she had passed away from her terminal illness but had asked them to thank me. I cried all the way home that day. It’s like a small window into someone’s darkest moments and no matter what kind of person you are, there will always be calls that stick with you.
As well as the bad calls, I also remember the absolute idiocy of some of the people I spoke to. The people who shouted at you because no ambulance was roaring down the road on lights and sirens for their ingrowing toenail. The people who told me someone wasn’t breathing just because they knew it would get someone there quicker. The absolute numpty who called to tell someone that they had coloured fluff in their belly button and was that normal? The ones who called the emergency number to ask for the non emergency number or to request pizza or similar. The ones that made you bang your head repeatedly against the desk as you were aware that someone might be waiting on the line with a real emergency.
It wasn’t just the calls I personally took, though. Sometimes it was sitting by a friend and colleague as they gave CPR and bleeding control instructions to the friend of a teenager who had been stabbed. I remember listening to a colleague across the room helping a lady deliver twins – I think everyone was holding their breath during that call. There was one morning at about 3am that I remember a colleague giving CPR instructions and another on the other side of the room delivering a baby – that was bizarre. It was the calls you heard about but didn’t necessarily take. The calls you listened in to. The ones where you saw your colleague leave the room for a “stress break” only for them to come back ten minutes later ready to jump back in. Every emergency ambulance call in London came into that one little room and sometimes it was just mind-blowing to witness.
I have friends who still do that job and even after doing it for three years myself, they can still tell me stories that shock and amaze me. They’re still some of my favourite people because like I said, it takes a special kind of human to do a job like that. It comforts me that should something happen my dispatcher friends and their colleagues are there no matter what time of day or night it is. And they are more ready than anyone could ever be to deal with whatever happens. They’re like the guardian angels that most people don’t even realise they have.
Have a look at the #Iam999 hashtag on Twitter. It really is an eye opener into what is NOT an “admin” role. It’s not “reading from a script” and it isn’t an easy job. Even as someone who has left that career behind, there are things that will always stay with me and that have shaped the person I am.
I’m still annoyed that I never got to deliver a baby over the phone, but that’s another post for another day.