A day in the life of a 999 Emergency Call Answering Service (ECAS) operator

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We had a conversation with Bernadette Forde, a 999 operator of ECAS at BT Ireland. We wanted to know more about Bernadette’s essential role in ECAS, how her work has changed due to the pandemic and what she does for Ireland’s ECAS, a service BT Ireland has been providing for over ten years.

 

What is ECAS and how crucial is the impact of the work done by ECAS in Ireland?

ECAS is the Emergency Call Answering Service in Ireland. 999 and 112 are free phone numbers that can be dialled from either a mobile phone or fixed phone line, for the public to call if they have an emergency. Operators at our two ECAS Centres, based in Meath and Donegal, transfer emergency calls to An Garda Síochána, The National Ambulance Service, The Fire Service and the Irish Coast Guard. We are the first point of contract for the public that may find themselves in an emergency.

What does your role as 999 ECAS operator entail?

As an ECAS operator, I do 12-hour day shifts, 7 shifts over a 14-day period. I handle calls from the public who find themselves in an emergency and need an emergency service. My job involves making sure that the caller is connected to the correct emergency service, following the correct policies and procedures in place. I also do Lead Operator duties which involves, passing over an up-to-date handover to the shift change coming on duty, checking rotas to make sure all operators are logged in, raising any technical issues and ensuring all operators are informed of any service effecting issues.

What was most challenging about your job when the Covid-19 pandemic hit?

I think the most challenging was our call intake increased by 50% over the first weekend of lockdown, but not only were we dealing with the usual emergency calls, callers contacted ECAS who were concerned about the Covid-19 virus rather than using the HSE 1890 helpline. We also had the same concerns in ECAS about the restrictions and the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace at the beginning of the pandemic. Thankfully, ECAS have been very supportive throughout.

How have you had to adapt to the rapid spike in demand ECAS received during the pandemic?

I think the rapid spike was due to the nature of some of the calls as many people were concerned about Covid-19 and I found the length of the calls were longer. ECAS employed more operators and we had some operators change shifts etc. We also had extra sites opened to allow us work safely and social distance. 

Are you working from home, what are the benefits/challenges of that as an ECAS operator?

I work from the office, but I have worked from home doing extra hours or when I am on call. However, that would not give me enough of a real idea of what it would be like to work from home on a long-term basis. I think it would suit some operators due to time saved with no commute, savings on travel costs and helping isolate if they or their family are vulnerable. The downside could be the loneliness as the shifts are long and I guess the uncertainty on when they can eventually come back to the office.    

Can you walk me through what a typical day looks like for you?

A typical day begins at 7.30am. We all have our own designated seats and our own equipment. We clean our desks down each day before we start our shift and at the end of each shift. We also wear masks when we are moving around. I take approximately 230 calls each day whereas before government restrictions and businesses closing, I would be taking about 280 calls as it would be busier. I am a lead operator so the duties I perform before my shift include, checking the handover from the previous shift, where any service alerts or changes will be reported verbally and in writing. Checking rotas for absences/sick etc and follow up with management if needed. Delivering breaks to operators and checking event logs and noticeboard for any further service updates/faults or alerts and advising operators if there are changes. Making sure everyone is logged in and checking homeworkers are logged in at home. We use an instant messaging service that allows us all to communicate between both sites and office/homeworkers which is a great help to us. My shift ends at 19.30.

What are the major differences between your job before the pandemic and now?

Some of the major differences are the types of calls we take and having the ability to take calls at home. We would have averaged about 6000 calls a day which increased by 50% at the start of the pandemic due to callers querying about the virus, the Covid-19 helpline and looking for ambulances. It is quieter now with regards to these calls as information on who to dial and what to do has now officially been set up. Also, the call intake has decreased on the weekends due to the government restrictions and non-essential businesses being closed, especially at night as pubs and restaurants are closed. Of course, there is sadly people suffering with their mental health issues in these tough times and I have noticed that there is an increase of calls associated with people who are finding these times hard and the tragedies that sadly come with them. Working from home happened in a very quick fashion. It wasn't something I ever thought we could do, take 999 calls from home and I think that was a great achievement for the engineers/managers and all involved. It also allowed anyone who had health issues to be safe too and it provided the operators that were on site with a safe environment to work in.  

What is the best part of your job?

Knowing that I may have saved someone in a life and death situation as we are the callers first point of contact when they need help. I love being part of such an amazing team all working towards the same goal and really appreciate being surrounded by such enthusiastic, hardworking and determined people. It makes a sometimes-challenging role a lot easier. I am very proud to work for BT and provide such an important public service to people all over the country.

BT Ireland

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