'What's your emergency?' Talking through life-and-death situations

Monday, November 9, 2015

999. 911. 112. Wherever you are, whatever it is, the emergency telephone number was probably the first you ever memorised. We assume these 3 numbers will instantly connect us to help when we need it. But what's life like on the other end of the line?

In the UK, emergency services call operators take around 100,000 calls every day – spread mainly across medical, fire and crime incidents around the country. The caller might have had their car broken into, or found an elderly relative unconscious.

What does it take to survive in such a stressful, high-pressure job? We asked Jessica Wood, a medical emergency services call operator in Cheshire, UK.

Jessica, what prepares you for life as an emergency services call operator?

You don't need to go to university to do this job but typing skills are useful. Once your application is accepted, there’s a 5-week training period which is pretty full-on.

You learn to use the switchboard and there's a first aid course which is essential as, on the job, you'll often have to give a caller first aid advice while they wait for the ambulance.

A really important part of the training is learning to prioritise calls to make sure that people that need help the most are seen first.

Is there an 'average' working day for you? What's it like?

I work a 5-week variable shift pattern, so it's definitely not a 9-to-5 job. Depending on the shift, I can be working mornings, afternoons or in the middle of the night which can make it difficult to make plans socially – but you get used to it.

My first task on arriving at work is to make sure that all of my equipment – computer, keyboard and telephone headset – are working properly. Once I've done this, I'm ready to take calls.

Like any job, there are quiet times and mad times – weekend nights are always busy and strangely Monday mornings tend to be almost as busy as Saturday nights. I work full days with a 'lunch' break (I'm quite often having 'lunch' at 3 o'clock in the morning!) and coffee breaks, which we take in the staff canteen.

During the shift I'll receive calls from all sorts of people – sometimes it's somebody who's drunk and has been in a fight in which case I'll ask if they can make it to A&E and, if not, I'll despatch an ambulance.

Other calls can be more complicated. If the caller is with somebody who is choking, I'll despatch an ambulance but also try to help them help the choking person themselves – in that kind of an emergency it's critical that help is immediate as it can be actual life or death.

How do you get vital information from people who are seriously distressed?

You tend to learn and develop your own methods of getting the info that you need. The most important thing is to always stay calm as it's reassuring to the caller and, if they hear that you're calm, it tends to help them calm down too.

Get the caller's name and use it frequently as it makes them think of you as a friend, which also helps them to calm down enough to tell you what's happened.

Occasionally you'll get a caller who is angry or abusive and, really, you use the same methods to calm them – although, if they carry on, it's sometimes best to hand the call over to a supervisor so that you’re free to continue taking emergency calls.

What does the pressure of the situation do to your short relationship with the caller?

Generally, the job can be stressful but with experience you learn to detach yourself a little bit from the situation. Having said that, you do develop a brief relationship with the caller as they see you as a friend and the person who can help them.

That's particularly true if they're on their own and have had an accident or, as quite often happens, they think that they're having a heart attack or a stroke – in which case they'll sometimes think that they’re dying and are understandably scared and emotional.

Your main job is to assure the caller that help is on the way and that they’re going to be OK – even in the horrible instances when it becomes clear that this is not the case.

Thanks for talking to us Jessica.


Do you deal with people who are agitated or scared? How do you cope with those conversations? We'd love to read your story below.

By using
, you agree to
our use of cookies
I agree