Miranda asked:

What advice would you give to us, as members of the public, on how to be the best possible 999-callers?

I’ve come up with a list of “commandments” for you. These come with the caveat that we know that when you’re calling 999, it’s an emergency and you’re going to be distressed and unprepared, so we don’t expect you to be perfect. But, y’know, it helps if you try!

1. Know Thy Address. When you call, make sure you have a full street name, house number, area name and postal district, and any important information and landmarks which might help us find it. If this isn’t possible (for instance, if you have just witnessed a traffic accident, you might not know the name of the road you are on), call from a telephone box or other landline (ask in a shop or knock on someone’s door) — we can trace the call. We can’t trace the exact location of a mobile phone.

2. Know Thy Problem. We get loads of from receptionists and security guards who have been asked to get an ambulance for someone else without being told what is happening. An ambulance is unlikely to be dispatched until they’ve told us what the problem is. This is because a) we triage calls according to importance, and we don’t know how important it is if we don’t know what is happening b) we don’t just have ambulances, we have helicopters and cars and bicycles and Emergency Care Practictioners (and telephone advisors!) which we might dispatch depending on what has happened c) ambulance crews don’t like entering dangerous situations, and like to know what they are going to before they go blazing in.

3. Stay With Thy Patient.
You’ll need to answer a few questions about the patient and possibly perform a bit of first aid, so it really helps if the person who is calling is sitting right next to the patient.

4. Thou Shalt Not Waffle. Give clear, concise answers to questions and don’t be scared to say “I don’t know” if you don’t know! Now is not the time to give the patient’s entire life story.

5. Thou Shalt Not Hang Up Until Thou Is Told.
On TV 999 calls are over in seconds. In real life, you will be on the phone for approximately 2-3 minutes or until the ambulance arrives. Don’t hang up until the call taker says you can. Remember that the length of the call has absolutely no bearing on how long the ambulance will take to arrive, and that what the call taker is telling you is important.

6. Trust Thy Call Taker.
I reckon I spend about half an hour a day listening to callers “helpfully” telling me things like: It’s an emergency! You’d better get here fast! Stop asking questions and just send the ambulance. You could send one from Woolwich Ambulance Station, it’s just around the corner. I think you’re going to need the fire brigade too. Tell them to drive fast! Hurry up! Etc. Remember that we have been taking these calls day in, day out, for years. We don’t need you to tell us how to do our jobs.

7. Meet Thy Ambulance. If you have a spare person at the scene, get them to stand in the middle of the road and do an impression of a windmill. The location may be obvious to you, but it is not always obvious to the ambulance crew, and while ambulance crews are usually local, they’re not always.

8. Keep Thy Phone Switched On. Or give an alternative number. We often need to call people back for more information.

9. Thou Shalt Keep A Civil Tongue In Thy Head. Yes, we know you’re panicking, but really, there’s no need to be rude. Call the call taker an effing moron once too often and the blue flashing lights you see next will be attached to a police car!

10. Know Thy First Aid
. We can give you instructions over the phone, but don’t wait until you are kneeling over a comatose relative to learn CPR. Ask your employer or St John Ambulance about going on a First Aid course.

Published Oct 06, 2006 - 52 Comments and counting

52 Comments on “The 10 Commandments of Dialling 999”
  1. Chairwoman Says:

    ‘Know thy first aid’ – Done the course, had the certificate, but when my late husband had a heart attack, by brain atrphied, and I stood there like a gormless idiot, while my daughter and my neighbour took and followed the CPR instructions.

  2. Chairwoman Says:

    As it did then. That should have read ‘my brain atrophied’

  3. Adam Bankin | Blog Says:

    [...] A post on NeeNaw about what to do when you need to call an ambulance. Very good advice that should be taught in schools. [...]

  4. Liz W Says:

    Thanks for this. I am going to print this out and put it by the phone – my husband has a medical condition which can sometimes require an ambulance, and this will be useful backup for the instructions we have given our eldest son on what to do if he is alone with his Dad when that happens.

  5. Mary Says:

    Can you take GPS co-ordinates if someone reads them out to you?

    I ask because I seem to go past a lot of accidents on motorways and A-roads, and it bugs me that if I had been the among the first people to see the accident, and had had to call 999, I would have to use my (not traceable) mobile phone, and the best indication I could give of an exact location would be “um, the A14 and we went past Cambridge about five minutes ago, and there’s a tree, and we’re not at the services yet, um…” but the in-car GPS co-ordinates would give an exact spot.

  6. Mark Myers Says:

    Mary – I don’t think we can. What do GPS co-ordinates look like? We can take the co-ordinates of a mobile phone signal which gives an approximate location (though we don’t, because it’s rarely helpful). On a motorway or other major road an exact spot isn’t terribly helpful anyway, because we still have to enter from the nearest junction, so what we ask for is the last junction you passed, the name of the road, the direction and which area you are in. The last one is the one people don’t usually know, but it’s quite easy to work out looking at a map. GPS would probably tell you that too, I suppose.

  7. GJ Says:

    We (in the U.S.) used to be told to make sure your phone number and address were posted near the phone, which is still good advice. That way it’s right there if you’re brain freezes when you call; or, more importantly, if the person who has to make the call happens to be a houseguest.

    This happened to me when my father had his last heart attack–I was visiting, and I think I had to get the address off of bills lying near the phone. He also lived in an area that didn’t have 911 service at the time, and I was unable to quickly find the emergency services number in the phone book. Fortunately (although ultimately it didn’t matter), I’d been taught as a child to call the operator to get an ambulance.

  8. Mike Scott Says:

    Numbers 1 and 3 are very often going to be mutually exclusive. Which of them is more important?

  9. Mark Myers Says:

    Number 1 is more important, but make sure it is coupled with number 2 if number 3 is impossible! It’s not true that they are “very often” mutually exclusive, though. You’d have to be pretty unlucky to stumble across an emergency when neither you nor anyone around you knows where you are, and most people have mobile phones so don’t have to run off to find a call box.

  10. dullahan_999 Says:

    Really have to stress No.5

    Between TV, Hollywood and plain panic many people think that dialling 999 screaming for an ambulance then putting the phone down is the best way to help someone.

    Once we have an address, help is on the way. In the meantime we collect information on the situation so we can give safety and/or first aid advice. Putting the phone down so you can run back to your friend and flap about in a panic is not as helpfull as staying on the line and following instructions for cpr.

  11. John C. Kirk Says:

    Regarding #1, has your system changed much in the last 10 years? When I was living in the Docklands in 1996, I saw a small fire in the bushes, so I called 999 from a payphone to get the fire brigade. I was able to give my location as “outside the supermarket, opposite Crossharbour station”, which should be unique within London, but the person on the phone said that they couldn’t do anything without a street name. I wound up putting the phone down (not hanging up, just leaving the receiver dangling), dashing off down the road to find a street sign, then running back when I’d found it, so the small fire (which I might have been able to stamp out by myself) had turned into a huge one by the time the fire engine turned up. Do stations count as sufficiently good landmarks nowadays, or would the dispatcher have to pull out their own A-Z to look up the street name for the computer system’s benefit? (When I was a kid, payphones used to have the address printed next to them, but this particular one didn’t.)

    Regarding #5, the idea scenario would be for one person to deal with the casualty while another person handles the phone call. However, if I was on my own when someone keeled over with a heart attack, by the time I’ve spent 3 minutes on the phone there’s probably not much point in starting CPR. Can you spread the call out a bit, e.g. “here’s my address, now hang on for a minute and then I’ll give you the medecila history”? Having said that, I realise that if a situation is serious enough to need an ambulance then first aid will only be buying time rather than fixing the problem, so the 999 call does need to take priority.

  12. Mary Says:

    Mark – I’d check to see exactly what my GPS looks like but it doesn’t work indoors. Here is a site with an example, I know I get lat and long references N##:##:## and W##:##:## but I can’t remember what else there is. Sorry.

  13. draquin Says:

    Hey Mark, this is lovely & concise. Would you mind if I use it when I am teaching first aid classes ? I’ve been giving them the basics, [as you've posted before] for the last year [year & half?, ages anyway...], but this collects all into a nice, straightforward list & written as “commandments” could provide a dash of memorability. Anything that gets them to remember it…
    End of September, I had a student back to do her 12-monthly resus update & she thanked me for teaching her how to save her child, but I need to pass on her thanks to you, for your guidelines on calling the ambulance, staying calm & the information she needed to give. So from halfway around the world, [Brisbane, Australia], a big THANK YOU from one of my students. She still has her daughter.
    Draq.

  14. Mark Myers Says:

    In reply to John C Kirk…

    Question 1 – If what you just described happened now, we’d have the location of the phone box straight away, and we can type in the station’s name and its postal area and the computer will recognise that without a road name. However, it’s still LAS policy to ask for a road name (to double check and because some stations have two entrances) so you’d still be sent out – but help would be on the way while you were doing it. I don’t think we would have got the address of the phonebox automatically ten years ago.

    Question 2 – if a patient is “suspended” (our euphemism for unconscious and not breathing) then there aren’t any questions other than:
    “What’s happened?”
    “What’s the address?”
    “Is he conscious? Is he breathing?” (if not already explicitly stated)
    “Did you see what happened?” (this is to determine whether we should be encouraging the patient to do CPR, or whether they’ve got a week old corpse in front of them. Often we don’t need to ask this as we’ve already been told. Also gives the caller an opportunity to tell us if it is a dangerous situation or if we need another emergency service.)
    “Is there an AED available?” (if it’s a public place)

    Then we plunge straight into CPR instructions. If you already know how to do CPR, just say “I know how to do CPR and am going to do it now” or suchlike, and leave the phone open so the call taker can hear what is going on.

  15. Mark Myers Says:

    Mary – the co-ordinates we can use are the OS ones, the ones at the top of the example in that site. Does your GPS provide those?

  16. Miranda Says:

    Thank you, this is fantastic! I agree that it should definitely be taught in schools. I do some work for the Learning & Skills Council so will put a word in if I can.

  17. green_knight Says:

    Kirk, I’ve reported a fire recently which happened to be on the other side of the railway line from where I was. (I was coming out of a small out-of-town shopping complex.) I had _no idea_ what building it was in (other than ‘looks like an abandoned warehouse’ [actually part of mine workings]) nor how to get to it, but I could triage on the location well enough that the operator confirmed they’d already had a call about it.

    Very concise list, thanks.

  18. mrhappy Says:

    For anyone that want’s to know about the police side of things (which I imagine things are very similar if not the same as fire/ambo), we get certain details that are sent automatically by data link (phone number, service provider and more crucially OSGR of the call and the accuracy of the grid reference). The OSGR provided is usually pretty accurate (95-100%) and can be extremely useful when some hoax callers phone thinking they are anonymous and we greet them with the sight of a police car! Obviously also good for when people call and are in serious trouble and don’t know where they are. We can also set up a live trace if the circumstances permit and the right authority is given.

    We can type the OSGR into our mapping system and come up with a pretty good location from that and then put down the nearest road name or junction.

    Our system is also probably unique in the fact that we can also get approximate locations on what people can see on the motorway, we type in ‘Ikea’ for example and it gives an option of either ‘on the left’ or ‘on the right’ and from that we get the motorway, junctions between and n/s bound..

    We rarely lose people you’ll all be pleased to know!

  19. Mary Says:

    Mark – I think there’s OS co-ordinates, I would check but I haven’t been able to leave the house for a few days.

    I’ll bear it in mind, anyway.

  20. RayN Says:

    Mark,
    Thank you for an excellent update for my boy scouts training from 35 years ago.
    One more commandment ( for everybody – not just the person who calls the ambulance ) taken from Reynolds Random Acts of Reality :-

    Have your house number clearly marked and visible from the road in order that an ambulance does not waste valuable time once it has arrived in the area

  21. aidan Says:

    a slightly related question… dialing 999 on a mobile. i’ve done this a couple of times in london recently and been put through to call centres somewhere else entirely. glasgow the first time, blackburn last time.

    i don’t /remember/ this happening when i lived elsewhere.

    do you know how mobile operators route 999 calls?

  22. pen9 Says:

    Just a reminder – if you need to give a location on a motorway:

    1 Road number eg M67
    2 Direction of travel eg West
    3 The Marker Post number eg 146/1

    The marker posts are placed every 100 mtrs and give an absolute location when combined with road number and direction of travel, as well as directing you to the nearest emergency telephone.

    Note than some A roads have marker posts too eg A57 Woodhead Pass

    /rant
    PLEASE, PLEASE have your house number easily visible at the roadside or at least easily visible from the road at night. Alley lights are good, but if we cannot see you house number AND READ IT, much time can be wasted finding a house number in the dark – time much better spent with the patient.
    /rant off

  23. Stan Still Says:

    To Aidan

    What usually happens is that your mobile call is routed to a call centre that has capacity to answer your call immediately. It is usually the larger ones that can handle extra calls, for example when an incident occurs on the motorway, hundreds of calls may come in from mobiles.

    The call taker knows roughly where you are, so they contact the local emergency service that you request. However, it doesn’t always work, especially if you are travelling on the motorway network, where you can cross several county boundaries in a short space of time.

    This is why you are advised to use the emergency phones at the roadside, because the call goes straight to the relevant control centre, who know exactly where you are and in some cases can monitor the situation on CCTV

  24. Tim Worstall Says:

    Britblog Roundup #86

    Welcome once again to our little collection of those posts you nominate. The idea is to try and pool our reading, to swap those bits and bobs that we should have seen but quite possibly didn’t. You can amke nominations

  25. Mike Says:

    Last time I called the police, I’d been woken at 3am by screams from a flat behind mine. Trying to remember the road name _that_ flat was on proved very difficult for a groggy half-awakr brain. Spelling it was impossible.

    I eventually gave it as “Corona Road”, you know, as in the soft drink. That worked :)

  26. Megan Says:

    As a calltaker in a very small, very rural area, I have to add that the where is very important. Our system does not give location, so don’t assume that the person answering your call knows exactly where you are. After that, listen to the person you are talking to. They do not ask questions for fun or to ruin your day. They need answers.

  27. Rob Says:

    http://boulter.com/gps/ is exactly what a 999/911 operator needs if the person on the other end of the phone has a GPS.

    Different GPS systems give their coordinates in different formats — that tool takes any format of coordinates and tells you exactly where the caller is.

    Try it out — see if you could figure out how to handle a caller from: “N51 30 02 W0 08 36″ or from “51.500659 -0.143453″

  28. Dave Stuart Says:

    Hey Mark, just writing to say that I’ve come across your blog and been reading the whole thing, it’s fascinating and I just wanted to say a big thankyou for all the hard work that you and your colleagues do each and every day. You do not get enough credit (or pay or holiday etc…) but remember that you are appreciated by many people and there’s at least a decent human out there for every fool you end up on the phone to!

    Anyway keep up the good work and I wish you all the best for the future,

    - Dave Stuart

  29. Spazzle Says:

    Why didn’t i read this before today???
    I had to call for an ambulance today and i was really scared and didn’t know what to do (that was probably more because i had scarey grannys looking at me and shouting at me, rather than the actual situation – a girl had fallen over twice whilst waiting for a bus and was really dizzy)
    had i known exactly what information to give, i may have not been so scareded.

    but the ambulance people came quickly, and the gentleman on the phone was reallly nice :)

    ooh quick question… why do they have to “confirm” your number really slowly at the beginning of the phone call, cause i was asked for the number again by the person i was put through to?
    or is that just something that HAS to be done??

  30. calltaker Says:

    Spazzle,

    We ask you to confirm you telephone number so we know for certain that we have a note of the correct number. This could save valuble time if we need to call you back for any reason. It is something that must be done on every call aswell as confirming the location. If we do not do it then we get a huge slap on the wrist if our call gets audited!

  31. Alex Says:

    Regarding phone numbers. I had to call for an ambulance fairly recently (from a normal BT landline). The operator put the call though to the call taker and manually read him the phone number. The call taker then asked me for the phone number and address, asked a few questions, and then asked for the phone number and address again. Later in the call he asked to confirm the address again.

    This seems a lot of times to ask for a location. Is this normal? If not, I can only think that it might have something to do with the Lancashire Ambulance Service (which I lived within) recently turning into the North West Ambulance Service after merging with three other services, and there being some problem with system compatibility.

    Another thing that was different from the calls that have been described on this blog, was that the call taker, after the triage questions, told me that an FRU and ambulance had been dispatched. I didn’t even ask him for this information.

  32. Mark Myers Says:

    Alex, the number of times you were asked for the address sounds a bit excessive — we only ask you for the address once, or twice if you’re calling from a mobile or non-BT phone. But it’s likely that the ambulance was dispatched the first time you gave the address, and the second and third times were just to check it. Am guessing your ambulance service don’t get the addresses from the exchange, or the link was down at the time.

    We are not allowed to say that a FRU/ambulance/anything is on its way, but believe me, this rule gets broken! It might be allowed up there, or your call taker might have been bending the rules to reassure you – he wouldn’t be the first!

    Spazzle, I often wonder why the exchange have to read out the number really slowly at the beginning of the call too – it is totally pointless as we get the number automatically on our screens. In the past we didn’t, and the exchange read it out so we could write it down, but now it’s just a waste of time. With any luck the operators will be told not to do it any more soon.

  33. Spazzle Says:

    oh okeys, thank you caller taker :) and mark…
    i was just asking, cause i thought something weird was happening, like deja vu, cause i was soo sure the woman who connected me, told me my phone number.. but then i had to tell my phone number again, and i was just wondering….

    it’s all good though :)

  34. Ruby Says:

    A hint I was told once was to put something like a shirt or pillowcase over the gate as a marker for the emergency services.

    I have been told that 112 is a better emergency number to use from a mobile phone than 999 – because 112 will use any network, not the one you subscribe to.

    I’ve also been told (and I think witnessed when I have been working in a Fire Control room) that the phone company operator will not close the call until the emergency services confirm it is OK to. So even if you do hang up, the line will stay open

  35. Sarah Says:

    In response to Spazzle and Mark regarding telephone numbers – we now have a system which can automatically populate the telephone number field. However, it doesn’t always work – quite regularly it’s blank, and also quite regularly it’s filled with little boxes instead of numbers – not very helpful! Therefore, we still require the operator to pass the number. We also ask to confirm it, in case you’re phoning from a business where your call routes through a switchboard, as we need a direct dial number. More often than not the switchboard has no idea someone called for an ambulance and can’t put you through to the person who called if you need to speak to them again. I don’t know if the problem with the telephone number field is our system, but until that gets sorted out, we will still need the operator to pass the number at some point, and for the 3 seconds it takes, they might as well do it at the start of the call.

    And there really is no need to tell us that we “were just given the ****ing telephone number” when we ask you to confirm it – we were paying attention as soon as the phone rang…..! There really is a reason for every question.

    Mark – the 10 commandments are excellent, and they should definitely be taught in schools, along with basic first aid skills.

  36. Spike Says:

    That asking for the phone number and address more than once is a bloody good idea. Last time I had a ride in an ambulance I was in so much bloody pain I couldn’t get the numbers in the right order. Had to read my own number and address of the phone bill.

  37. http://drug-g3au.blogspot.com Says:

    Pretty nice site, wants to see much more on it! :)phentermine prescription

  38. James Says:

    I’m currently in the process of drafting an information leaflet to be distributed to all new arrivals at the halls of residence in my university, covering everything from what to do if a flatmate is taken ill to why it’s not a good idea to play incredibly loud music at 2AM. Can I have your permission to reproduce these commandments (fully credited) in the pamphlet?

  39. Mark Myers Says:

    Certainly :)

  40. Matty’s Life » 10 Commandments Says:

    [...] Credit to Mark Myers – http://www.neenaw.co.uk/index.php/ambulances/139/the-10-commandments-of-dialling-999/ [...]

  41. James Says:

    Much obliged!

  42. AdamF Says:

    Ruby,

    Pure nonsense. 112 is exactly the same as 999 in the UK. All UK mobile providers require a valid sim card and will only place a 999/112 call on YOUR subscribed network. If you have no service, you don’t get a call.

    This can be unfortunately evidenced when I found a very bad accident at 3am coming home from work one morning and my 3 phone didn’t have any service (I didn’t realise that at the time), dialed 999 … got nothing. Dialed 112.. got nothing. Jumped up and down and swore at it, dialed 999 .. still got nothing.

    I ended up jumping back in my car, driving almost a mile back the way I’d came before I came across civilisation, found a phone box, and used that. Ironically I also had a signal on my mobile then too.. grr.

  43. New Movie Reviews Says:

    New Movie Reviews

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article, but it sounds interesting

  44. Richard Cartledge Says:

    From the end of 2009, emergency calls will have roam to another network if the subscribed one is out of range. This is nothing new, it used to be the case until around the year 2000.

    "I have been told that 112 is a better emergency number to use from a mobile phone than 999 – because 112 will use any network, not the one you subscribe to."

  45. Nee Naw The 10 Commandments of Dialling 999 | Patio Chairs Says:

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  46. George Potter Says:

    Thanks very much for posting all the information on Nee Naw, Suzi. As a First Aid Trainer I like to give trainees correct and up-to-date information. It's great to have answers from the person actually doing the job.

  47. Michael Pearson Says:

    Please could you give me some advice on the following; I work for Network Rail maintaining and faulting signaling systems my duties take me on the track everyday sometimes i acess the track from a station or gate at the end of a road or a overbrige or even a farm lane.Due to the large areas area i cover i would be hard pressed to even put a name to them all.Network Rail do have a hazzard directory which lists acess points with postcodes but theses only cover 30% of the area we cover,the remaining ones i could give a street name to about 60% but as for postcodes i wouldn't know if it was LS1 or LS27 then the road could be a mile long.Have you had any problems dealing with this.I think the obvious thing to do is use the listed ones if it takes longer to get where im going but then theres the problem of being a mile from a postcode i do know to 20 yards i dont know.Any help would be gratefully received

  48. Michael Pearson Says:

    Please could you give me some advice on the following; I work for Network Rail maintaining and faulting signaling systems my duties take me on the track everyday sometimes i acess the track from a station or gate at the end of a road or a overbrige or even a farm lane.Due to the large areas area i cover i would be hard pressed to even put a name to them all.Network Rail do have a hazzard directory which lists acess points with postcodes but theses only cover 30% of the area we cover,the remaining ones i could give a street name to about 60% but as for postcodes i wouldn't know if it was LS1 or LS27 then the road could be a mile long.Have you had any problems dealing with this.I think the obvious thing to do is use the listed ones if it takes longer to get where im going but then theres the problem of being a mile from a postcode i do know to 20 yards i dont know.Any help would be gratefully received

  49. cain Says:

    just a quick question, say i had a medical emergency at home but was unable to reach the house phone so grabbed my mobile and managed to tell you i was in trouble before passing out, would or could the mobile be traced to the address as i was unable to supply it?

  50. neenaw Says:

    If your mobile is registered to your address, then yes, the mobile phone company would be able to give us your address. We can tell your rough location (within about half a mile usually) from the signal but not enough to work out exactly where you are if you're at a home address.

  51. cain Says:

    thanks Suzi for the quick response better get the mobile registered then.

  52. Book Review: Nee Naw Real Life Dispatches From Ambulance Control | The Blog of Elliott Rodgers Says:

    [...] to call an ambulance (in fact read this blog entry even if you don’t think you will need to: The 10 Commandments of Dialling 999). If you are wondering about the name, Suzi chose it because Nee Naw was the sound of the ambulance [...]

    Nee Naw
    Nee Naw was a blog about life in the London Ambulance Service control room. It was written by Suzi Brent from 2005 to 2010. The blog is no longer being updated, but the archives will remain here.
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