999 Call Handlers carry out one of the toughest jobs within the UK emergency services. They are often the ones who get to speak to casualties, victims and loved ones of victims either during or immediately following a very traumatic incident. Having the ability to remain calm is absolutely paramount to this role.
To celebrate the release of 'The Call', starring Halle Berry and in cinemas today, we take a look at the role of a 999 call handler, with the help of Richard McMunn a former Fire Officer...
To begin with, there are three main emergency service call handlers who will take calls from those in need. These are Police Communications Officers, Fire Service call operators and finally, last but not least, Ambulance emergency call handlers - they all do very similar jobs and in some ways the roles are the same.
Halle Berry stars in 'The Call' out today
In order to explain the role a little better we will focus on the Police 99 call operator.
When we think of police officers, we typically think of the front line roles, the so-called 'bobbies on the beat' dramatically portrayed on our television screens in series such as 'The Bill'. Front line police work isn't necessarily for everyone, however, but there are many more opportunities open to potential candidates considering a career in the police force that would thrive in such an environment, yet are deterred by the aspects of the nature of front line work.
These posts include administrative roles, finance, human resources, call handling positions, data analysts and even librarians. Positions within the police force are often seen as tough and unpredictable but they can be very rewarding. The role of the Police Call Handler is no different.
WHAT IS A POLICE CALL HANDLER?
A Police Call Handler is the first point of contact for all 999 emergency and high priority calls for police assistance. It is estimated that around 80,000 emergency calls are made within the UK every single day. The role of Call handler is a wide and varied position comprising early, late and night shifts. It is a twenty-four hour a day, seven-days-a-week role, throughout the year.
999 Call Handlers are required to handle large volumes of telephone calls, obtain and record accurate information, assess the situation and level of police response required and initiate the appropriate police action as rapidly as possible. Often they may be required to handle several emergency situations simultaneously, all of it taking place within the confines of an intensely pressured environment. Every time they respond to a telephone call, it's impossible to predict what type of call they will be responding to.
A Police Call Handler is the lynchpin in communication between the police force and the general public. It is a highly demanding, highly stressful position yet can also be extremely rewarding. Call handlers will deal with calls from the downright tedious to the deadly serious on a daily basis. It is certainly not your standard nine to five job, nor is it for the fainthearted. From people being mugged to someone complaining about their neighbour's dog, no two days will ever be the same.
To put the significance of the role within context, the Metropolitan Police Force alone covers an area of 620 square miles and a population of 7.2 million. On a typical day, Police Call Handlers working for the Metropolitan Police can be expected to handle around 6,000 emergency calls alone. The number of non-emergency calls can also reach 15,000 every day.
That is every day of the year.
That's not the end of the story of course. The level of emergency calls increases dramatically during summer and can reach peaks of around 10,000 calls every day. Equally, Thames Valley Police receives 6,500 emergency (999) calls and 21,000 non-emergency calls (101) every week.
THE FRUSTRATING PARTS OF THE JOB
While there are many rewarding elements to the role of a 999 Call Handler there are also some aspects which can be both highly frustrating and highly demanding. For example, imagine being the first person who takes the call when a member of the public is trapped inside their house whilst there is a fire burning downstairs.
They have just woken up, reached for the bedside telephone and dialled 999 - unless they can get out, or the Fire Service can attend in time to rescue them, you might be the last person whom they ever speak to.
Understandably, there have been many situations where a 999 Call Handler will take time off work through stress having had to deal with such a traumatic experience. As you can imagine, this type of job is not for your average person. It takes a very special type of person to deal with the stress that is sometimes related to this role.
In addition to dealing with stressful and upsetting 999 calls, call handlers and emergency crews sometimes have to deal with the other frustrating aspects of the role, namely hoax calls. To give you an example of the type of scenarios 999 Call Handlers and emergency crews have to make, Richard McMunn, a former Fire Officer with Kent Fire and Rescue Service takes up the story.
"I can remember serving as a firefighter at Maidstone Fire Station on a cold New Year's Eve. It was relatively early in the evening (approximately 8pm) when we received a shout to fire in a house, persons reported. 'Persons reported' basically meant that the 999 Call handler had received a call from a member of the public stating there was a fire in a house and that someone was trapped inside. I can remember rushing to the Fire Engine from the recreation room at the Fire Station, sliding down the pole as fast as I could in order to get ready for the 'shout'. As soon as I jumped on to the back of the Fire Engine the Officer-in-Charge informed us that it was a serious fire with someone trapped inside. I immediately put on my firefigting kit and breathing apparatus in preparation for entering the building as soon as we arrived. The address of the reported fire was approximately 2 miles away from the station, so it didn't take us long to arrive at the scene.
Just before we turned into the road where the fire had been reported, we heard over the radio that the 999 Call Handlers had received another call to someone else trapped in a fire in a different location which was a couple of miles from our location. The call handler had dispatched a different Fire Engine and crew from a Fire Station within the next town; naturally it would take them longer to reach the fire as it was not their home territory. To have two similar types of fire within such a short distance from each other seemed very strange; however, our focus as firefighters that night was to concentrate on the fire we had just been dispatched to.
As soon as we entered the road we could not see any activity outside the house that the fire had been reported at. We pulled up outside the house and could see no sign of fire or smoke - instead, we could see a family sitting down in their living room watching television. The officer-in-charge went to the front door and a rather bemused looking man answered. He informed us that there was no fire at this address and that it must have been a hoax call. The officer-in-charge then contacted the 999 Call Handler at the Headquarters to ascertain where the report of the fire had been made from. The call handler soon came back and informed us that the call had been made from a telephone box approximately 300 yards from the scene of the alleged fire. Unfortunately the report of the fire turned out to be a hoax call, something which was very frustrating for both us as firefighters and also for the 999 Call Handlers. What made the situation even more frustrating was the fact that the other fire which had been reported was actually a real incident where a member of the public had sadly died from smoke inhalation. If the hoax call had never been made, could we have reached them faster than the other fire engine? Most probably.
Richard McMunn is a former member of the emergency services. Click here to find out more about his work, including how to become a 999 Call Handler.
'The Call' is out today in UK cinemas. Watch the trailer below...