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The human side of 000: what ambulance call takers want you to know

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If you ever have to call an ambulance, chances are you’ve found yourself in a bit of a stressful situation. Your head is probably racing with thoughts, your heart pumping, and possibly your body is shaking. When someone answers the phone, your words may spill out in a tangle, as you desperately try and get someone to help.

For the person on the other end of the phone, each call is also a pressured step into the unknown.

Connor is an emergency communications officer in the ACT Ambulance Service communication centre. Straight out of school, he started his career in the communication centre for the ACT Police, and worked there for five years. For the last three years, he’s worked in the ambulance call centre – his role including everything from taking emergency triple zero calls to ambulance enquiries and patients’ transport bookings.

He says working in the emergency call centre is, “like what you see on TV”, but despite almost a decade working in the field, “you can’t prepare yourself for the intensity or the unknown when you answer the phone”.

Emergency call takers manage emergency calls from start to finish, following a script of questions that help triage the resources required for a job. Call takers are supported by the ambulance dispatchers and paramedic clinicians, who also sit in the call centre, and the three work together to provide the relevant advice or send the appropriate care.

“We have a series of questions that we need to ask to arrange the best help for you. But some people don’t like the questions. [They ask] ‘where’s my ambulance? Why are you taking so long? Why are you asking me all these stupid questions? Why aren’t you focusing everything on me and helping me’?” says Connor.

“We reassure people our questions aren’t going to delay any help we’re going to organise for them, but they don’t like it sometimes.”

That can sometimes lead to verbal abuse, with the callers taking their stress and frustrations out on the call taker. Connor has had callers get so irate they not only threaten him, but threaten to also track down and harm his family.

“It’s tough. It’s not the standard that you want to listen to. It’s not nice being yelled and screamed at,” he says.

“[For the caller], it’s the worst point in their life at that time, hence why they call an ambulance, but at the same time, I don’t deserve to cop that.”

After difficult calls, staff are encouraged to step away from the phone and take some time either by themselves or with a team member to debrief. They also have a peer support network who are available to support staff after difficult phone calls, plus an Employee Assistance Program.

Despite the occasional abusive call, Connor loves his job. He loves knowing he’s helping people, and he finds the shift work suits his family – he and his wife have three kids – plus he loves the camaraderie of the team.

“You get close with your team, and they’re like your second family,” he says.

He said it’s a role that could suit anyone—they have staff ranging from those straight out of school to people from other industries including childcare and hospitality. And by the time you’re working independently in the role, you feel fully confident. Everyone gets a full six weeks of training, followed by eight weeks working on the phones where you’re supported one-on-one by a mentor – Connor is currently mentoring a new staff member—before you’re signed off as an independent call taker.

If you feel you’re in urgent need of medical attention, Connor always encourages people to call for an ambulance. But also remember that the service is there to help people in genuine emergencies. If you’re experiencing a non-urgent medical situation, there are other medical services that can help, such as your GP, or Canberra’s walk-in centres. If you do need to go to the hospital but have someone who can safely transport you there, that can also be a good option.

“We treat everyone, no matter who you are. We’ll give you the best advice that we can at the time,” says Connor.

“There is a misconception that if you go in an ambulance you get seen quicker, but you don’t. Whether you go to hospital yourself or via an ambulance, the triage system once you get to hospital is exactly the same.”

And if you find yourself in a position where you are calling an ambulance, don’t forget that the person on the other end is trying to help you.

“They don’t understand that we might have just got off a CPR call, or we might have just dealt with a child having a seizure or febrile convulsions, and we’ve just hung up that phone,” he says.

“We’re humans on the other side of the phone.”

Workplace violence is never okay. Find out more about how you can help make ACT Government workplaces safe for everyone at act.gov.au/campaigns/workplace-violence.

ACT Government employees featured in these articles have volunteered their stories to raise awareness around occupational violence and the impact this has on them and the Canberra workforce.

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