Emergency Services

OK, I just have to point this out. We seem to be experiencing a mini moral panic, because two girls trapped in a drain called for help on Facebook instead of dialing 000. Now, I have kids and I would want them to dial 000 in that situation. But I’d also want them to try facebook, twitter, or whatever other social networks they were connected to.

Because in this instance, remember, Facebook worked. According to the article someone who read the status called 000 and the emergency services responded. The concern is that relaying the message caused a delay. That’s legitimate, and it’s why I think calling 000 as well is a very good idea. But there’s another side: relaying the message through the social network adds a layer of robustness. If 000 had not responded then the social network would have mobilised other help; the people connected to those girls would have saved them.

And sometimes the official channels do fail. For example, our emergency dispatch services in Australia rely on automated systems that demand a street address. In situations where that’s not available the system can break down, as it did for David Iredale, who called 000 seven times when lost in the Blue Mountains in December 2006, and clearly explained that he was on the “Mt Solitary walking track heading towards the Kedumba River”, but tragically died after being dismissed by operators because he could not provide a street address.

Street addresses are not a perfect system; friends can work around that but centralised institutions have trouble with it. I once lived on Sutherland Avenue, one block down from Sutherland Street and not very well signposted. Taxis would ignore the instruction to come to “Sutherland Avenue, NOT SUTHERLAND STREET” every. single. time. And yes, ambulances too.

In extremis I’d want my friends to know I needed help, not just an “ambulance triple-0 centre […] hopelessly inflexible and staffed by civilians forced to work 12-hour shifts without sufficient breaks“. The emergency services do save a lot of people, and clearly they’re working very hard to do so. However it seems this is in spite of inefficient systems, rather than because of efficient ones.

And sometimes, in some places calling the emergency services isn’t an option. As for James Buck, whose single-word tweet of “Arrested” alerted his network of friends to spring him from political arrest in Egypt. We are lucky in Australia to have our police working for us, at least most of the time.

So let’s not decry the fact that these girls reached out to their connected community directly for help, instead of thinking first of the crucial but overburdened and overcentralised triple-0 service. Let’s recognise that new ways of doing things have their own strengths, and that hyperconnected ten and twelve-year-olds might have something to teach us.

3 Responses to “Emergency Services”

  1. Dean Procter says:

    In the light of inevitable failures in the emergency services, I’d probably prefer the kids called me first.
    In a moment of panic choosing a familiar path is common. If you know your social network is aware of you and a quick response is usual. then it leaps to mind as a reliable option.

    There are situations where there needs to be better human-like interaction with people reporting emergencies. Achieving this with current resources requires us to use the technology available to remove the need for human interaction where we can (on the part of 000 operators) and task them to the instances where personal attention is required.

    If someone is reporting an emergency in a public place the system should be designed to connect the reporter to the emergency service personnel who will deal with the issue, ie in the nearest location.

    In many cases it is possible to get a situational awareness without even speaking to a victim or person reporting an issue. Integrating existing technology and infrastructure is the answer.

    We mostly carry mobile phones now. A little integration would see the demand for emergency services reduced, leaving the operators time to follow up properly on every emergency call.
    It is a tough job and we need to make it easier, more reliable and efficient for all of us, including the emergency operators.

    I leave you with a question – in the case of a threatened or actual assault in a public place – how are our children supposed to dial 000 and face interrogation over the phone at the point of a knife or with a boot in the face?

    On a train or bus… which street are you in? Suburb. Doh?

    Tourists just don’t have a chance.

    000 just isn’t going to cut it in the 21st century.

    There is plenty more I’d like to say but the mrs works for…

  2. Interesting blog post, was curious if you would permit me to link to it in a article im currently writing for my own site?

    • viveka says:

      Certainly – on the web there’s no legal or ethical requirement to get permission to link to something, please go ahead. Anyone who claims you need their permission to link to them is fooling themselves.

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