“The heroes behind the phones”

Patricia Harmse of Milnerton and call centre team leader Laetitia Abels of Bellville.

From medical assistance to a department store alight, a body found, vehicle breakdown, drowning, cigarette butt contravention, land invasion or broken traffic lights, it’s all in a days’ work at the City of Cape Town’s 107 Public Emergency Communication Centre.

With an expected increase in call volumes over the festive season the emergency call centre staff will be on hand to help but they need the public’s help.
The centre has been operating from Wale Street in the city since 2000. Two years ago it moved to its present state of the art location at the traffic management centre in Goodwood.

Head of service quality Estelle-Maré le Keur says the call centre is the first port of call for many people who require assistance in an emergency.

They field about 43 000 calls a month. 107 operates similar to 911 by assessing the calls which are linked to emergency services of law enforcement, emergency medical services, traffic and external partners, such as the police.

However, the response is only as good as the quality of the information provided, says mayco member for safety and security JP Smith. “We urge callers to be comprehensive in their description of the problem requiring assistance,” he says.

Call centre team leader Laetitia Abels says patience, passion, good communication skill and being a good listener are important requirements in the job.

Ms Abels juggles three computer screens, a cellphone and answering 107 calls while dealing with a team member who needs to change their shift. The cellphone monitors emergency calls sent to Mr Smith. “We are the ones who handle these calls. If necessary we phone the person to get more information,” says Ms Abels.

It’s a well-oiled integration system using all the city’s safety and security emergency services at the press of one button, says Ms Abels.

“What’s your emergency”, she asks taking a call at 11.35. On Campground Road there is a situation. No-one is hurt but an e-hailing driver is found to be unlicensed and aggressive. Traffic services and police have been called to the scene.

Patricia Harmse says the most difficult calls are life-threatening. She is one of the first intakes to join the centre.

“Sometimes we have to give CPR directions over the phone. We’re given special training which is regularly updated. Each shift has one or two people who can do this,” she says.

At this time of year they experience many drownings, suicide calls and motor vehicle accidents – some with multiple injuries, straining services.

However there is a lighter side to the job. “Some descriptions are lost in translation. Where people struggle to express themselves. Such as when someone called to say someone was having a vagina attack. After lots of questions and patience we worked out that it was an angina attack,” says Ms Harmse.

“Or the way there’s a stabbing at the back of the front where a wife is sticking her husband in his big bone. After years of experience we learn to decipher what they say,” she says.

Another issue is people not knowing their address, possibly because they are visiting someone, partying or are in labour.

She said they find that hoax/prank calls are declining, possibly due to media and no more public phones. It’s not only children who make hoax/prank calls.

“We had a call from a man who said he was in labour. We have to translate this. He could be a sex change or born differently. It turned out to be a hoax call,” says Ms Harmse. “It’s very disappointing and taking time from a call that could be life threatening.

“A difficult call was a hostage situation where the woman did not know where she was. We asked her to WhatsApp us. The police could pin her location, went there and found that it was an angry prostitute who had not been paid. It was very stressful for the call taker,” says Ms Abels.

They estimate that the highest number of calls concern vagrants. The person is usually angry and swearing. We are their first call. We let them vent. Other angry calls are noise complaints and dogs barking, says Ms Abels.

When calling 107, be prepared, you will be asked basic questions: name and contact number; location; a brief description of what is happening/happened; in a medical call, a description of the patient’s condition or medical history; in the event of a crime, a description of the suspects and their whereabouts/weapons; in the event of a fire emergency, a description of what is burning, and whether anyone is trapped.