‘Pretend you’re going to catch a rugby ball’

Ok I’m hooked now.

My first job was taking 999 calls. This is the emergency number in the UK, but differs from 911 in a couple of ways. For one, the call goes to anywhere in the country as the whole system is networked, and two, we ask the caller if they want fire, police or ambulance and connect them on to the relevant service, rather than taking the details and dispatching units. Normally we pass the call off at that point, but if the caller can’t give clear information we stay on the line, muted, until the call ends. The services know this of course and will sometimes call out ‘operator’ so we go in and offer what help we can.

I had a call from a mobile. Bear in mind this was in the year 2001, phone tracing wasn’t the speedy process it is today, so it was absolutely vital to get the address details.

So anyway… half twoish on a Sunday morning this guy calls in gibbering, couldn’t get a word out of him. I was patient and eventually he said ‘Ambulance! We need an ambulance.’

Now the eagle eyed among you will recognise very early Sunday morning as being also very late Saturday night. So there’s any amount of drunks getting in fights and being hit by cars, as well as the normal weekday stuff, all of which incidents require ambulance attendance. This often meant that the 999 operator could wait a long time, sometimes up to half an hour, before the service the caller needed even answered the phone. I hope it’s better now, I had people die on the phone waiting.

I was fully prepared for this so what I did when I had a caller waiting on the line was to be reassuring and make notes. Notes I made became important if the caller’s signal dropped and we couldn’t get back through.

So I managed to calm the guy down and get his address, and his story. He’d been in bed with his wife, who was very nearly full term with their first child. She’d woken him by gasping as labour started, and her waters had broken. Most first time parents panic, but the official advice is to get someone to drive you to hospital, an ambulance isn’t generally required- mothers who might need one are told if they do. I told him this, but he shouted at me-


Now I had to admit at this point I still thought he was just a new dad freaking out because his partner’s making terrible noises he’s never heard from her before, but he started describing what was happening.

Him-‘She’s all folded up, like… she’s all red… I can see a bubble’

A bubble, I thought. A bubble? Oh god, could he be saying….

Me- ‘James… JAMES. Ok, listen to me. This bubble, is it between her legs?’

Him- ‘Yes… it’s coming from her… (traditional British bloke unwillingness to use the proper term) downstairs!’

Now I was only 19 and hadn’t been in the job long and I was stuck in the queue for the ambulance. My manager was aware of what was going on but sadly there was no magical direct line through to the ambulance and redialling would send me to the back of the queue. There were no medically trained staff in the building but the baby was coming now so I pretended a confidence I didn’t have and stayed with him through the labour, giving him every bit of advice I could remember from documentaries and dramas and friends who had been through it. Literally minutes later-

Him- ‘It’s comingit’scomingit’scoming oh christ’

Me- (making a pretty convincing stab at not being a clueless teenager) ‘Ok James, well you need to be ready and there to take hold of the baby. I want you to put your phone on speaker…’

There was a clatter as the phone was dropped. James’ wife (Simone, I think) had given a few last huge pushes and their son was delivered into the hands of his father, slippery and wriggling. I was still on the line- understandably I was forgotten in that incredible moment- and I could hear the parents exclaiming over their brand new child. After a few minutes the ambulance answered and I filled them in on what had happened. I managed to get James’ attention by buzzing the line, and passed him over to the operator.

So that was the night I learned two things- a) what precipitate labour is and b) my bullshitting skills really are pretty advanced.

I’d like to point out that in no way am I a hero in this piece. I didn’t really help him deliver the child- the labour was straightforward and anyone would know to not let a child drop onto a hard floor- but I think I gave him confidence by being there, and reassurance. I was very pleased that the ambulance operator called me before the end of my shift (bear in mind, I wouldn’t have been easy to track down at all, we had 7 call centres at the time) to tell me that everyone was well and that I had the couple’s eternal gratitude for helping them. I will never ever forget that night, not until customer service drives me beyond reason that is.

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