Saturday, November 29, 2008

Heroes at the end of the phone

It's tempting to think of people working at the end of the phone as doing a simple task. The traditional lady sitting in front a telephone exchange is perhaps indelible in our minds. But it is worth thinking of the awesome job done by some people at the end of a phone.
I helped with some fund raising activities a few years back for the Friends of the Samaritans. As a result I got to know a little about how the Samaritans do their excellent work. They really have an awesome role. Often they are sat around with nothing to do, but the sword of Damocles hangs over them. The next phone ring could be a life or death situation. But their role is strictly "passive". They don't advise or cajole or even phone the emergency services (unless freely asked to do so by the person on the phone). Imagine that. It takes an admirable brand of courage to be prepared to put yourself in that situation.
Those responding to 999 calls also have a certain degree of courage to be able to calmly deal with life or death situations while being geographically divorced from the action. This week I have read a number of verbatim accounts of calls to the emergency services. The Guardian's Weekend has a number of accounts which all had reasonably happy endings. I recommend reading them. One involves a gentleman who cut his arm off (by accident) and whose neighbour had to call 999, respond to medical advice and then go and find his neighbour's arm in his garden. You some of the calls related by Weekend here.
On a more sobering note, the Newbury Weekly News this week carries an account (also here on the Times website) of the 999 call made by Julia Pemberton as her son was shot to death by her estranged husband, as she unsuccessfully hid in a cupboard and as her husband found her and shot her.
The circumstances of the death of Julia Pemberton and her son Will are perfectly outrageous. It is a scandal that we, as a society, could not prevent their deaths after Alan Pemberton the husband had actually said several times that he intended to kill them, including in writing, months before he finally did.
Indeed, the recent Domestic Homicide Review report on the deaths made clear many failures in the police response over months, including guidelines which led to delays in the handling of the final 999 call.
However, imagine the person on the police end of that 999 call. To go into work day after day knowing that you could be talking to someone and then listening to them being tragically murdered, takes a special kind of strength.

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