Friday, April 17, 2009

No Excuse For Losing David

Imagine wandering lost in the bush, with no food or water, and a mobile phone with just enough signal strength to call for help. You would imagine that one phone call would summon the help you need to get you out of your predicament. You would imagine that the miracle of modern technology would provide you with a lifeline that previous generations could only dream about. You would imagine that once you established contact with the authorities that they would know what they were doing and take the appropriate action. But you would be clinging to a false hope.

What happened to seventeen year old David Iredale in December of 2006 was inexcusable and unforgiveable. David called 000 not once, but five times, only to be treated with disdain and sarcasm as the operators adhered to a script which demanded that he provide a street address. Obviously, most emergencies take place at a location which can be defined by an address on a map, so it’s an obvious question to have at the top of the list. But what is beyond belief is the revelation that the system has no way of dealing with a reply indicating that there are no streets.

There are three clear problems to emerge from this tragedy. The first is the attitude of operators who are apparently sarcastic, insensitive, and it would seem too stupid to know that there are times when independent thought is required. It is possible that some people who spend all day taking an unending series of emergency calls, some of them petty and annoying, and some of them hoaxes, might at some point become jaded and cynical. But when it gets to the point when they tell a clearly distressed caller to stop shouting at them it is time they found another job.

The second issue is the question of the training and procedure. Operators are working in a call centre where they sit behind a computer screen which displays a script for them to follow. It takes the form of a questionnaire and the first question is the one about the address. Now, obviously it is vital to establish the whereabouts of a caller so that assistance can be sent, and usually that means an address. But it seems that the way this particular program has been designed so much emphasis is placed on identifying a street address that the system cannot proceed without it.

This is where training should come into play. If for any reason circumstances arise which do not fit the pre-determined scenarios in the script on the computer system, the operator should have the training to be able to respond appropriately. In fact, the operator should have the basic intelligence to be able to make a common sense judgment about how to deal with the situation. Failing that, a supervisor should be stepping in.

The third issue is just as shameful as the first two. The really stupid thing about the whole situation is that none of this should be necessary in the first place. We already have the technology to identify the location of any phone making an emergency call. It’s not complicated. It’s not difficult. And many mobile phones already have it built in. It’s called GPS. But for reasons of cost, the phone companies and the authorities have not been able to reach an agreement to implement a simple system where any call made from a mobile phone to the emergency number will automatically have its location plotted within seconds.

What happened to David Iredale should never have happened at all. But until the system itself is changed the chances are it could easily happen again.

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