Cool, calm, collected and caring
When Robyn Moreton picks up the phone, she never knows what kind of emergency will be taking place on the other end of the line.
Sitting in the Emergency Ambulance Communications Centre, known as North Comms, she works for 12-day stretches answering 111 calls and making sure people get the help they need.
The main communications room is divided in two – half the desks manned by communicators and the other by dispatchers, the people who send the ambulance on its way.
Robyn joined the team in September 2006 and was working as a communicator two months later.
Working across four linked computer screens, she codes calls according to priority, pulls up maps and takes details, all while keeping the caller calm and giving instructions.
She went for the role after returning to New Zealand from the UK and says it was a complete career change after working for a phone company.
“It was a huge learning curve, not only learning the system but also the computer system, looking at four screens and coordinating things together.”
When a call comes in, Robyn’s first job is to work out what’s going on with a set of basic questions.
Details are then sent to the dispatchers, who send out a crew.
“It can be a pressurised job but it’s down to the individual. It is exciting but it does get full on when it’s all kicking off.”
Although taking her first call was a nerve-wracking experience, she managed to keep her cool.
“My heart was pounding in my chest, but I put on an exterior and kept my voice sounding calm.”
Maintaining that steady voice is one of the most important aspects of the job, she says, especially when trying to get information from people in difficult and traumatic situations.
“If you sound like you’re panicking, you’re giving them permission to panic. You’ve got to sound like they rang the right person and you are going to help.”
Once the caller is calm and listening to instructions they feel better.
“They feel like they are being proactive and helping whoever it is.”
The centre deals with about 1500 calls a day, of which 500 are emergencies.
Robyn loves the role and says she probably couldn’t go back to a normal ninetojob.
“It’s a real privilege to be invited in by someone in a moment in their lives where it’s a really personal and intense time. It may be a friend or family member and something traumatic is happening.
“They invite you in to get an ambulance to them and tell them what to do. I find it incredible.”
Sometimes the caller will ask her to stay on the line with them and keep talking while they are waiting for the ambulance.
“It’s a hugely rewarding job. Before they hang up they thank me. There’s no other job like it.”
Dealing with trauma every day can be tough, especially when the callers are small children or elderly people, says Robyn.
“You’ve got to be able to distance yourself and separate your personal and work worlds. But some calls do make it inside the little wall you build up.”
When that happens, she goes for a walk and has a chat with friends to clear her head.
The centre also provides support for communicators if they need it.
But not all the calls are doom and gloom.
One lady called and gave her an address in Waihi but Robyn couldn’t find the street in question and the caller was unable to give her a house number.
“I said, ‘Are you there with the person?’ and she said she wasn’t, she was calling from Auckland.”
When asked how she knew something was happening, the woman said she had seen it in a crystal ball.
“She said she could sense someone was not well in that street in Waihi.”
Team manager Kath Caulfield has also had people phone and ask for the Lotto numbers and one woman phoned who was convinced she was in Wales.
Calls can be traced as long as people are using land lines, but it takes up valuable time and communicators prefer callers to be able to give an address.
Kath says the operation runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week and communicators can take calls from around the country.
When a call comes in from outside the northern region, the details are automatically passed on to the other communications centres in Wellington and Christchurch.
“People coming into the service need to have good geographical knowledge,” says Kath.
Communicators work for 12 days and then have four days off. “People love it because of the lifestyle it enables them to have.”
But communicators need to employ a wide range of skills to do the job successfully.
“You’ve got to be able to multitask, remain calm and be able to calm someone down who is in a stressful situation,” she says.
Good listening skills are also essential.
Communicators spend six weeks training before they set foot in the communications room, where they are assigned a mentor.
Anyone interested in becoming a communicator can phone 336-0399.
Finding emergencies: Ambulance communicators work across four screens to pull up maps and details.
Special profession: Robyn Moreton loves her role as a communicator.