'A child can't breathe. The parents hang up before I get the address': my job as a 999 call-taker


Monday

Today’s eight-hour shift starts in style. A colleague takes a call from someone who will only swear at her, refusing to answer any questions. Two minutes later I get the same caller, who says I’m a useless pain in the arse. I persist, coolly asking for his address; eventually he gives it to me. He claims to have been poisoned, only to decline treatment when the ambulance arrives.

A lot of mental health calls come in today. If someone is suicidal, I remain on the line with them and listen, giving them a chance to talk.

Tuesday

Today starts horribly, with a toddler who isn’t breathing. As I am trying to persuade the panicked parents to confirm their address, they hang up. I frantically try to call them back but there’s no answer.

People see characters on TV shout “Ambulance, NOW!” down the phone and think that’s it. But call-takers have to be absolutely certain we are sending help to the right place, so we ask you to repeat your location and phone number twice. We also have to go through a process to assess how urgently you need help: this consists of some simple questions like “Is the patient breathing?” and “Is the patient conscious?”. We can’t skip these questions – we have to ask.

I find out later that the parents of the poorly child legged it to the nearby doctor’s surgery, who also called for an ambulance.

Wednesday

I stay on the line with the mother of a baby with breathing difficulties. I try to keep her calm while we wait for the ambulance to arrive.

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Demand is so high today that crews aren’t waiting for jobs to come in; they are running from one job to another without returning to station.

A colleague takes seven calls from people with chronic back pain in one hour. If you’ve had pain for a fortnight, do you really need half a million quid’s worth of ambulance speeding to you right now?

Thursday

I take a call where a man has collapsed in his care home, and CPR is already in progress. The staff are efficient and urgent – someone runs for a defibrillator, while two others continue CPR. I check back later: the patient died, but I hope his family can take solace in knowing that the people looking after him did their best for him.

Friday

A man in his 70s is taken ill while at the home of his girlfriend. She tells me that they only recently got together and are preparing to set up home. After a while, I realise he’s had a stroke. We run through the stroke diagnostic test – face, arms, speech, time – and I hear her voice crack as she realises what’s happened. She knows this will be life-changing for both of them. As the crew arrive, I wish her well, and hang up to dry my eyes.

I’m consistently amazed by the people I work with. Call-taking is an entry level job, so most of my co-workers are in their early 20s. Many of them want to train to be paramedics. Some have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from handling calls, not to mention the exhaustion of shift work and the stress of being complained at on a daily basis.

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Incoming: an accident on a treacherous stretch of fast A-road. In grim weather, a car has rolled multiple times, and one patient is trapped. A helicopter is sent in addition to two ambulances. The caller is a passing driver and he’s terrific, managing a chaotic scene with multiple casualties. He keeps his cool throughout, giving me observations on all the patients, helping me pin down the exact location, and comforting and calming the people involved.

If you would like to contribute to our My working week series about your job in public services, get in touch by emailing sarah.johnson@theguardian.com



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