Cross Streets - The Real Crisis In Emergency 000

15 February 2012
Cockatoo Island is one of my favourite places in Sydney. The former ship building yards have been left largely intact - a rarity in this litigious age - with thoughtful historical signage directing the visitor to points of interest and advising on safety. "In the event of an emergency, call 000 and advise the operator you are on Cockatoo Island." I dread the day someone has to make use of this information. The 000 operator will most likely tell them they can't send an ambulance without the name of the nearest cross street.

We accept that working repetitive jobs means switching your brain off somewhat. For some it was never really switched on - I was saddened but not surprised to have my requests at McDonalds for a bag of apple slices met with repeated shakes of the head and mumblings of "sorry, what?" by the girl at the counter, until her manager translated that I was asking for a fruit bag (she couldn't have worked out that a bag of apple slices might be called a bag of apple slices because that's not what its called on the menu). It's annoying, a bit of a laugh, but no big deal.

But what happens when this mindlessness lurches from annoying to dangerous? The concern about 000 emergency phone operators is real. They must share the call script software with taxi companies, because as taxi travellers can tell you these days, a precise street address is the only thing a taxi dispatch operator will accept. It's no use asking for a taxi to, for example, the taxi rank outside Broadway shopping centre - not knowing the exact name of the street the taxi rank is on, we simply couldn't order one; nor could we when trying to order a taxi to a major intersection in Newcastle - Newcastle! - without a street number. It's the same for trying to order taxis to most major landmarks - if you don't know the address, with street number and nearest cross street, you're out of luck.

One could argue that it's the taxi hirer's responsibility to know the pick up address - leaving aside, for instance, the lone figure trying to get home late at night from an unfamiliar and unsafe neighbourhood - but what about when calling emergency 000? The phone operators at 000 show a worrisome and dangerous inability to dispatch emergency services without a precise street address. In late 2010 I was travelling on a bus when an elderly man fainted. It was school finishing time, so I was pretty much the only adult on the bus, apart from the driver who seemed frightened and unsure what to do, and I ended up being the one to call 000. The 000 operator refused to send an ambulance without knowing the exact street address and street number. Never mind that I said we're on the bus that's stopped outside a major, very well known Sydney RSL. She wanted the exact street address and I ended up having to send one of the kids on the bus up to the nearest corner to read the name off the street signs. It was, it is ridiculous. I'm out "in the field" with an unconscious elderly man, a bunch of schoolkids ranging from upset to overeager, and a bus driver who kept chanting "oh no, oh no". She is on a computer, in a call centre. Even if the computer system she's using requires an exact street address, couldn't she have just used Google? It's one thing if a caller gives a location of "we're a few miles past the red house...everyone locally knows it". But surely there should be some levity to locate major landmarks. Then there's the question of what happens if there is no street address. I've heard of one instance where the 000 operator indicated they couldn't dispatch emergency services because the caller couldn't provide a street address - and no wonder, as they were calling from a boat that was sinking off the NSW coast. Following the 2009 brawl between rival biker gangs at Sydney airport, a 000 operator demanded to know the street address of the domestic terminal - and told the astonished security guard calling to report the incident that he "needed to get down there are see what is going on before I can send someone" even though the guard informed the operator he was watching the whole thing on CCTV.

When dispatching help to an emergency situation, time is of the essence. The horrifying possibility is that people could die due to the inflexibility of the 000 reporting and location system, but at least one person already has. In 2006, 17 year old David Iredale died of dehydration after becoming lost whilst bushwalking in the Blue Mountains. He had repeatedly called 000 for help - only to be scolded by the 000 operator for failing to provide a street address and yelling due to poor reception. Recordings of the calls were played in the inquest into Mr Iredale's death; I can't even begin to imagine the pain of his parents, having to listen to the dying words of their son and knowing he was in contact with potential help, but it was stymied by bureaucracy, inflexible rules and pettiness. And four years later, nothing had changed when calling emergency services in NSW. During slow news cycles, the media loves to run stories about ridiculous and petty calls to 000, typically featuring callers who have burnt their dinner, have an ingrown toenail or are running late to a job interview and are out of phone credit. It's true that these time wasting callers are a huge problem. But so is the current system of reporting actual emergencies, and we hear nothing about it.


  1. I wont repeat my experiences when dealing with 000 during my fathers heart attack. Needless to I did use a few expletitives.

  2. Allan I think you should repeat the story. There are real issues which need to be highlighted if they are to be fixed.

  3. On the Friday dad woke up suffering from chest pains. We took him to hospital as you do to a man in his 60's. That night he had a massive heart attact. They actually took 90 minutes or so to bring him back.

    Fast forward to the Monday and without any tests, x-rays they release him with some blood thining tablets.

    On the Wednesday he again experiences the same pains in the chest, but much much worse. They believe he had a 2nd heart attack although not as severe.

    Anyway because his discomfort was much worse then the problem on Friday I called the ambulance. after giving my address they started asking all these questions about the colour of his skin, body temp, is he sweaty and all this. Naturally having already in the last few days had a massive heart attack do you think I could care less about answering such questions?

    My exact words were to the operator. "Last Friday my dad had a massive heart attack. He is experiencing the same symptons as before but is in a lot of fucking pain and is teary eyed just get a fucking ambulance here"

    The operator threatened to hang up.

    "Don't threaten me, I've already gone through one heart attack, I'm not going to put up with this shit just get somebody here"

    Once the officers arrived they told me that there was a "potentially hostile person" at the premises but they did mention that unless you are forceful with them the operators don't get the seriousness of any given situation.

  4. It doesn't surprise me at all. They are trained to only follow the script. The operator I spoke to would not address the situation further and wasn't interested in the patient's condition until I gave the exact address. When I tried to explain I was trained in first aid and managing crisis situations she told me to forget it.


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