The Sydney Control Centre of NSW Ambulance is one of the largest emergency call centres in the Asia-Pacific.  In this exclusive interview with Matchboard, Deborah Barndon (Director, Strategic Initiatives, NSW Ambulance) speaks about the critical role of the Centre in meeting the needs of the community, and the unique people and technology dimensions which differentiate it from a typical contact centre. 

What are the differences between an ambulance control centre and a traditional contact centre?

The Control Centres operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and are located in Eveleigh (Sydney), Warilla (Wollongong), Dubbo and Charlestown (Newcastle).  Staff are rostered on weekends, public holidays and night shifts.

Working in the control centre is not like working in a traditional contact centre by any means. The Sydney Control Centre is made up of a team of truly awesome individuals who diligently serve the community with an admirable level of commitment, camaraderie and perseverance. Along with colleagues across the NSW Control Division, they play an integral role in managing the patient journey from the initial call for Ambulance to the arrival of paramedics on scene. In Sydney, we service a population over 5 million generating more than 1250 emergency calls and 235 priority medical calls a day from the public, allied health care providers and other emergency services requiring the provision of relevant and approved first aid advice and reassurance. 

How do you plan for unexpected surges in calls?

It’s incredibly difficult to forecast call demand as it’s driven by community need rather than marketing activity or advertising campaigns. We continually plan and monitor historical and real time reporting information.  The Control Centre needs to be a dynamic environment with a constant focus on performance and continual improvement in everything we do. 

What sort of support do staff receive to cope with stress and trauma?

NSW Ambulance acknowledges the importance of mental health and continually strives to develop and implement suitable strategies to support staff well-being. There are numerous support and educational strategies and training in place to reduce risk and maintain resilience in the workplace.

The focus is not only on treating and assisting staff but also on reducing the prevalence of mental health issues within the workplace. NSW Ambulance has collaborated with the Black Dog Institute over a number of years to assist in the development of programs that support good practice for mental health and well-being. 

What skills or attributes are required to become an emergency medical dispatcher?

Exceptional communication skills and a desire to make a difference are key. Control centre staff have to communicate effectively and sensitively to obtain or relay medical and health information and provide reassurance to facilitate appropriate and best possible patient care. It’s integral they can work independently and as a team member in a time critical environment with an astute ability to think clearly, work within defined procedures and remain calm in stressful situations.

Upon meeting the mandatory selection criteria for the role, all new staff undergo an intensive call centre training and mentoring program to equip them with the essential knowledge to navigate the Control Centre’s computer programs, learn the critical call taking procedures and other important Ambulance protocols. 

What type of technology powers the Control Centre?

NSW Ambulance undertakes all dispatching and call taking using sophisticated software developed specifically for ambulance control centres. This software allows ease of booking and appointments and rapid assessment and prioritisation of incidents. Controllers have the latest mapping and dispatch software to ensure the most appropriate resource is responded to incidents. Ambulance Control Centres are also equipped with up-to-date communication equipment that allows voice contact with all vehicles and Paramedics. This radio network is a combination of the Government Radio and a dedicated ambulance network.

Vehicles are equipped with Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) and GPS units to allow the dispatchers to communicate via data messages with the Paramedics and to accurately map vehicles within a geographic area. 

What do you like about your role? What are the challenges?

The best part of my role is working with an amazing team, striving to reach our full potential. I’m driven by the possibilities ahead and a belief that NSW Ambulance is on an incredible journey to Make Tomorrow Different.

As for challenges, the greatest one I see is work/life balance. When you love doing the work you do, juggling demands for a rewarding career and a fulfilling lifestyle can at times be exhausting, but as has been the case for me, very much worthwhile. 

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