Thursday, November 26, 2009

Saving Lives Should Be More Important Than Saving Money

It’s hard to believe that it has happened again. After all of the promises that the system would be fixed, that procedures would change, that people would be better trained, a 000 operator this week has hung up on a caller because he could not provide a street address. After so many failures in the past, and especially the tragedy which saw 17 year old David Iredale die alone in the wilderness, the people of New South Wales were promised that the lessons would be learned. Obviously, they haven’t been.

On Monday this week, Stuart Jamieson called 000 from a remote property near Moree because his friend had become seriously unwell working in the extreme heat. Following the prepared script for the standard procedure, the operator asked for the address. When told that the property does not have a street number, the operator apparently insisted that “every house in Australia has a street number”, and ended the call. She hung up. She did not send an ambulance. Fortunately, Mr. Jamieson was eventually able to get help from paramedics from Goondiwindi, across the border in Queensland.

It’s obvious that there are shortcomings in having all emergency calls taken in a centralized call centre which is hundreds of kilometers away. Operators have no local knowledge, leading to mistakes where ambulances have been sent to the wrong town because of similar sounding names. There are shortcomings in having operators follow an inflexible script on a computer screen in front of them which depends on a street address, but allows for no variation in unusual circumstances. But the most astounding shortcoming of all is that apparent inability of some people to make a common sense judgment call, and make a decision without a computer program telling them what to do.

What has happened to people? Why are some of them so stupid? And why are they getting jobs where they have life and death responsibilities? Surely any reasonably sane and sensible person would realize that just because a street address can’t be located doesn’t mean you can pretend the person in distress doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter. Surely any reasonable person would know that if the system isn’t able to deal with a problem then it’s time to exercise the one thing that makes human beings better than machines: the ability to think for ourselves. Or, have we somehow created a generation of people who no longer have that ability, who are stupid, or who simply just don’t care?

I suspect that the whole debacle is based on the stupendously stupid notion of economic rationalism, where the cheapest option is always seen as the most cost efficient. It’s cheaper to answer all emergency calls at a centralized location so therefore it must be better. It’s cheaper to employ people who cannot think for themselves so therefore it must be better. It’s cheaper to accept criticism for sometimes getting it wrong than it is to strive to always get it right. The trouble is that it’s just not true. It is a belief which is based on the false assumption that saving money is more important than the quality of the outcome, and in this case the outcome is whether or not we save lives.

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