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Inside the control room

Control Rooms are a bit like the VIP area at an event. Not that we have a velvet rope and a burly bouncer, but because not many people get the chance to see what goes on behind closed doors. The sensitive nature of our jobs make it tricky for us to show you what life is like for our Emergency Dispatch Assistants.

However, as it’s Control Room Week, we wanted to give you a bit of a glimpse into what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a 999 call.

My name’s Jen and I’ve spent the bulk of my working life in a Control Room. I’ve been an Emergency Dispatch Assistant for Thames Valley Air Ambulance since 2018 and before then I worked in the NHS as a 999 Dispatcher and a Control Shift Officer.

When you think of the work of Thames Valley Air Ambulance, you most likely think of our paramedics and doctors and the hospital-level care they bring by helicopter or Critical Care Response Vehicle (CCRV) when someone is seriously ill or injured. But the job doesn’t start when the engine starts. Before that, someone like me has listened in to a 999 call and alerted our crew to a major trauma where their skills could be the difference between life and death.

A day in the life

In my role, every day is different, and you never know what will happen. So, I spend the first thirty minutes of my shift getting everything ready for whatever the day holds in store.

Arriving at 6.30am, I check who is on duty from our crew and begin all the practical work of getting us set up for the day. As a self-confessed nerd, I quite like this part of the role as I can get everything organised and get across all the data! I start the documentation on our patient database, I’ll make sure everyone is logged onto the computer-aided dispatch system and begin carrying out radio checks. By the time the critical care paramedic (CCP) joins me at 7am, everything is ready.

The next thing I need to switch on is what I call my own personal radar. To be an Emergency Dispatch Assistant, you need to be constantly alert. Throughout the day, I monitor the ‘stack’ of waiting 999 calls as well as listening in to the calls being taken all around the room. In a hectic Control Room like the one we operate from in Bicester, I can be monitoring up to 3,000 calls per day. You are listening into jobs that might benefit from an air ambulance response; you are asking pertinent questions; you are notifying the paramedic of calls that need attention. While that might sound exhausting to many people, you start to get the knack for knowing what’s going on. I tell people it’s just a case of being nosy!

The CCP will identify an incident that will benefit from our crews assistance and I will then decide which of our assets would be most suitable to attend based on location, proximity and the skills available in the asset. We will then dispatch either our helicopter or one of our CCRVs to the scene.

Some calls are easy to tell if our support would be beneficial, others need more investigation. We may use the GoodSAM app, which allows us to view the incident through the caller’s mobile phone. The more information I can provide to the crew before they reach the scene, the better they can treat the patient.

You might only dial 999 once or twice in your lifetime. To most people, it’s an extremely rare event. But to us, the calls never stop coming.

Jen Michel, Emergency Dispatch Assistant

As well as the paramedic who works on rotation in the Control Room, Thames Valley Air Ambulance has three full time Emergency Dispatch Assistants and six ‘bank’ colleagues, who fill in for any sickness or absence to ensure we are always covered. We work alongside eight dispatchers from South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS). We have such a good rapport and we really come together in what can be a high-pressure situation. In fact, we’re all so close that sometimes it feels like coming to work with your family.

We come from a mixture of backgrounds. Some, like me, have worked in Control Rooms previously. Others are new to the environment. Some of them come from a caring background, for example. There is lots of training involved in making the switch over. They need to learn how to use the radio and the computer-aided dispatch system, they need to learn the phonetic alphabet as well as all our policies and procedures. It’s an intensive process.

switching off

I think the thing that people might not realise is just how busy the Control Room can get. You might only dial 999 once or twice in your lifetime. To most people, it’s an extremely rare event. But to us, the calls never stop coming.

In such a fast-paced and challenging role, you need to be able to switch off when you leave. We work four days on, four days off. This means we can take the time to re-charge and make sure that ‘personal radar’ is operating at full power when we come back!

At the end of the shift, it’s important you leave the Control Room behind. By picking up the calls where our crews can make a real difference, you know you’ve done your best for that patient. You’ve kickstarted a chain of events that could ultimately save someone’s life. That thought comforts me as I hang up my headset and head home.