Earlier this week I met with an old colleague who has been responsible for managing emergency service contact centres. We mused about how things are so different with the advent of Twitter, and the progressive launch of new 3 digit numbers 101, 111 and 112 to differentiate contact from emergency contact.

Prank calls and other totally inappropriate contacts have been an unwelcome feature of these services since inception, resulting in numerous PR campaigns to encourage us all to use these services wisely.

Recent highly publicised stories in the media about tragedies following calls to police call centres and NHS services have resulted in enquiries regarding the resourcing of such services, which have become a lifeline in today’s always on mobile world.

First introduced in the London area on 30 June 1937, the UK's 999 number is the world's oldest emergency call telephone service. The system was introduced following a house fire in 1935 in which five women were killed.  A neighbour had tried to telephone the fire brigade and was so outraged at being held in a queue (yes they has them back then!) by the telephone exchange that he wrote a letter to the editor of The Times, which prompted a government inquiry.

Today not everyone is clear about which number to call when;  for example mountain rescue experts complain of a misconception that dialling 112 is better than 999, as the theory was that 112 sends location information to emergency services.  This has been dismissed as incorrect by experts, but signals a deeper problem in our understanding of exactly who to call about what in an emergency (or indeed what we perceive to be one).

There are no shortage of funny stories about calls from the public; (link see 2 below) indeed some police forces have used Twitter to highlight some of the more outlandish examples, precisely to draw public attention to the sorts of calls that people actually make to emergency services.

Listening to some of these calls, I am amazed at the polite and calm response that each caller is given, even to a lady who called to complain that engineers were creating too much noise outside preventing her hearing the TV, or to another caller in a blind panic having been locked out of her laptop when forgetting the password. The next call could of course be from a person trying to save a dying person’s life and needing step by step, calm and clear instructions, all in a day’s work for our colleagues on the front line.

Media commentators will often describe emergency service contact centres as though they are a separate institution, devoid from the reality of health or police provision. In fact for the public these services are the front door to our experience, an integral part of police or health service.  Without the support of every other part of the service that touches the public, the success of the front line will be compromised. This calls for a thorough review of just how robust the relationships are between the contact centres and the rest of the organisation, and also a team effort to ensure that the most appropriate technologies are deployed to make the role of the human as human as it can be.

I am delighted that CCA is working with so many of these vital services; there is much that can be compared and shared with other public sector bodies and the commercial world in terms of failure demand, first contact resolution and how to deal with vulnerable customers. Equally by contrast, it is clear that there is a uniqueness in our emergency services which must be recognised and treasured by us all in order that we continue to rely on them with confidence.

In the words of Charles Dickens, ‘There is nothing so strong or safe in an emergency of life as the simple truth.’

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy takes out his phone and calls the emergency services.

He gasps: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says: "Calm down, I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: "OK, now what?"

911 Operator:  911, what is the nature of your emergency?
Caller: I’m trying to reach nine eleven but my phone doesn’t have an eleven on it
911 Operator: This is nine eleven
Caller: I thought you just said it was nine-one-one
911 Operator: Yes, ma’am nine-one-one and nine-eleven are the same thing
Caller: Honey, I may be old, but I’m not stupid