[LINK] Lost in the Blue Mountains: triple-0 operator 'uncaring'

David Boxall david.boxall at hunterlink.net.au
Thu Apr 16 16:18:54 AEST 2009

> The mother of a schoolboy who died after becoming lost while hiking in 
> the Blue Mountains cried as it was revealed that emergency phone 
> operators had been "uncaring" and failed to listen to her son as he 
> desperately pleaded for help, an inquest into his death has heard.
> The manager of the Sydney call centre of the Ambulance Service of NSW, 
> Superintendent Peter Payne, agreed that there had been serious 
> deficiencies in the way his centre had handled five of the emergency 
> calls made by David Iredale, 17, on December 11, 2006.
A young man gets lost in the bush, but he has a lifeline: a mobile phone 
and a working network connection. He makes at least seven calls to 
emergency services, but ends up dead. He should have had a good chance 
at survival. What went wrong?

> ... the call takers had been "fixated'' with receiving a street 
> address as it was required by their training.
The operatives couldn't think their way around the fact that there are 
no street signs in the bush. Sound bizarre? In my experience, it's 

My experience was in a large government department. Which department 
isn't relevant: they don't differ much - neither from each other nor 
from commercial operations. I've retired now so my knowledge is dated, 
but I doubt the situation has improved.

Call centre operatives typically get a database of scripted responses. 
They're trained to give no response that isn't in the system. If your 
problem doesn't match one of the available responses, you'll be given 
one of them anyway. Usually, the caller will hang up before realising 
that their question hasn't been answered. Sometimes, that realisation 
takes quite a while. But the operative has a completed call on their record.

An operative who's found to have given an answer that isn't in the 
system will be disciplined. If they're casual, they may find that they 
get fewer hours or none at all.

It acts like a winnowing process. The outcome is a distilled essence: 
operatives who can't think for themselves, have learned not to or can't 
be bothered.

Systems like that aren't limited to telephone call centres. Similar 
processes are used with correspondence and (when they bother to answer 
at all) email. Ever wondered why letters from government departments 
seem to be mostly irrelevant boilerplate text? What intrigued me was 
that, as quality of service degraded, the statistics employed by 
management to measure performance soared.

To my mind, the executives responsible for implementing such a 
commercial-grade system in an emergency services context should be held 
criminally liable. I reckon it's more likely that the operatives, who 
are just products of the system, will be held to account.

For those who don't know the story, there's more here: 

There's an opportunity here to come up with a system that works.
David Boxall                    |  In a hierarchical organization,
                                |  the higher the level,
                                |  the greater the confusion.
                                |                     --Dow's Law.

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