I always wondered what it would have been like to be a nee naw dispatcher in New York on September 11th. Yesterday, hopefully, is the closest I will ever come to finding out. 7th July started off as a normal day. Between seven am and ten to eight there was the usual steady trickle of miscarriages, labours, old women fallen out of bed and the like. Then, at 0853 we took the first call, from the Fire Brigade. This was rather sparse in information — there had been an explosion at Liverpool Street, could we have an ambulance (just the one) on standby as a precaution. I didn’t take too much notice, things explode all the time, it was probably, I thought, a stink bomb or something. The result of prolonged call taking is that you automatically assume anything you hear is less serious than the caller thinks.
Then a call taker sitting opposite me took a call from a member of staff at Aldgate East station.
“There’s been an explosion,” she said, “there are walking wounded coming out with cuts and soot and debris in their hair.”
The woman was panicking, it took a while for the call taker to get any information out of her, and while they were on the phone, call takers on the other side of the room took calls from Aldgate, King’s Cross and Russell Square. We started to wonder what on earth was going on — initially, I thought that there had been one explosion and the authorities couldn’t get their act together and decide where it was; when this hypothesis fell flat on its face, someone offered up the power surge theory. Since a power surge would potentially affect every station, this was cause for ambulance bigwigs to declare a major incident. Senior members of staff (not me) donned yellow, fluorescent jackets and set up a Major Incident Desk in the PTS office. The dispatch desks went crazy. The resource centre rang up all those who had the day off and asked them to come in. People ran round the room flapping bits of paper at each other. Office based members of staff left the office and came to the control room to add to the sudden bustle of activity.
At about 0920, I took a call from a rather flustered sounding policewoman from Paddington police station.
“There’s been an incident at Edgware Road station!” she said.
“An explosion?” I said.
“How did you know?” she said, confused.
I explained that there had been explosions reported at umpteen other stations too and we thought it was due to a power surge. At that point, we didn’t know how many explosions there had been, we only knew how many stations were affected (Liverpool Street, Aldgate, Aldgate East, Kings Cross, Russell Square, and now Edgware Road and Paddington) so we thought the situation was even worse than it was.
Inevitably, at this point, conjecture regarding bombs began. The predictable jokes about revenge of the French were bandied about. Suddenly, there was a small surge in call levels, with about six call takers simultaneously receiving abandoned calls from Tavistock Square, between Euston and Russell Square. (An abandoned call means someone dials 999, says “ambulance” and then hangs up). No-one was able to get through to their caller on ringback, but some of the callers had said something about an exploding bus to the operator before asking for the ambulance. Seconds later, the police informed us what had happened to the bus. The calls had all been dropped because the police had ordered all the buildings to be evacuated immediately. This, of course, put paid to the power surge theories.
We were allowed out of the room for ten minutes each to perform essential functions. After calling my girlfriend and my mother (neither of whom had any idea anything was wrong, and wondered what on earth I was talking about), I ran to the mess room and checked an internet site, where my friends were posting messages to say they were okay and advertise for news of anyone who hadn’t checked in. I was relieved to learn everyone was accounted for and posted my own message to let everyone know I was okay but working very hard and going to be incommunicado for the rest of the day. This gave me a couple of minutes left to catch the news, which was slowly catching up (it was still talking about Aldgate East and power surges at this point) and stock up on the free sandwiches, chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks that had been provided in lieu of lunch breaks. (It is a good job we do not get Major Incidents every day — I would get really fat). I stuck my head outside nee naw control and I was pleased to see we had been turned into Fort Knox with a battalion of nee naws blocking the road, half the police force eating sandwiches on the steps and a big marquee full of important goings on.
Back in the room, call taking for the next few hours was a steady stream of panicked hospital staff asking what we were going to bring to them and other medical services offering their help, peppered with a steady stream of oblivious 999 callers labouring under the misapprehension they would be able to get an ambulance in the next six hours. All calls that were triaged as “green” (low priority) were refused an ambulance and told to get in a taxi; soon after “amber” calls (which can be quite serious, although not immediately life threatening) went the same way. On the whole, people took this quite well when the bomb situation was explained, but there were still a few less understanding people who said things like “I don’t care if there’s a major incident going on, get me an ambulance… I’ve got a BLACK EYE!” These were firmly in the minority, though, and a lot of people who were deserving cases (chest pain and traffic accident patients, for instance) changed their mind and said they’d make their own way. After a while, the LAS were running short of bandages, and medical supplies companies were having difficulty getting into central London. Fortunately, other ambulance services came to our rescue, sending resources from Kent, East Anglia and Warwickshire (possibly others too – those were the ones I spoke to). Warwickshire even sent their helicopter to drop supplies and then help out at the scene.
After the initial buzz, call taking suddenly went very quiet. This was due to multiple factors: a) people realising all ambulances had gone to the incident and not even bothering b) mobile signal dropped due to police thinking mobile phones were being used to set off bombs c) entire staff of London Ambulance being in the room thus having twice as many people to answer half as many calls. Major incidents don’t tend to provoke many calls, either — at the time of the incident, everyone is too busy getting the hell out to call 999, and the ambulances would have been on scene in droves within minutes anyway. I believe the most calls we got for one incident were the six about the bus, and none of those were from anyone actually on scene with the patients. Compare this to your average motorway accident, where there can easily be twenty calls. This was fortunate for us call takers, as we did not have to deal with anything particularly gory. In fact, we were spared the casualty details. Part of me wished I could be on dispatch or the major incident room to see what exactly was going on, but I suspect this is a case of “be careful of what you wish for”.
The quietness then spread up to the dispatch area. Since all the ambulances were at the Incident and not coming back and we weren’t getting any calls and even if we did we weren’t sending anyone to them, nothing was happening. We all got to eat our sandwiches, and then it was decided we could start accepting calls again, although waiting times were horrific (I saw one patient, who had been assaulted, receive an ambulance after a nine hour wait) and hospitals were only accepting emergency cases. GPs were sending those patients that couldn’t wait for treatment to Welwyn Garden City, Watford, East Grinstead and the like.
Eventually, hometime arrived and everyone started worrying about how to get home. The managers started co-ordinating lifts but no-one was going to East London, so I got a ride home in a PTS ambulance which had somehow drifted from Kingston to Waterloo. The driver had no idea where he was going and kept driving round Aldgate in circles. This was not a good thing.
I went home thinking that this is the sort of incident that really sets apart what paramedics and ambulance technicians (and polices and fire engines) do from what I do. Yes, I get faced with some harrowing stuff, but that stuff is at the end of a phone line and it can’t hurt me if I don’t let it. While everyone else is trying to get away from the bomb sites, paramedics etc are running towards it and putting their lives in danger in order to save others. I can control whether listening to dying people affects me; you can’t control whether a bomb blows your arms and legs off. I hope that when I am a paramedic — and I will be, yesterday’s experiences have made me even more determined — I will be as brave as those who were on duty today and not go and hide in the wheel arch when they give me the call to say there has been another major incident.