Non-emergency calls leave operators seeing red

Melvin Bent (pictured) believes educating children about triple zero should be a priority. Photo courtesy Emergency Service Telecommunications Agency
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Every second is crucial for triple-zero call operators but with hoax calls increasing during school holidays, more needs to be done to educate children about making false reports. Costa Haritos reports.

An unsuspecting mother who found her son in the garden and talking to someone on the phone was left red-faced when she found out who was on the other end of the line.

The mother took the phone away from her child and was left in shock, before apologising and hanging up the line. Her son had called triple zero to help him find a dinosaur in their backyard.

But for triple zero call operators it is straight onto the next call in a 24-hour working environment where phones are always lighting up, demand is high and every second could be the difference between life and death.

These instances are very familiar for Melvin Bent, a call operator in Melbourne who says hoax and nuisance calls are so common, they start to become part of the job.

“They all start to blend together,” Mr Bent says.

“We’ve had people ring up and say that the police aren’t directing traffic properly and this is how they should be doing it.”

The acting assistant centre manager says more needs to be done to educate children about the impacts of making a false claim to triple zero.

“I think as a company we could probably do a lot more in that space,” Mr Bent says.

Melvin Bent works at the Emergency Service Telecommunications Agency (ESTA), which took an average of 7042 calls per day in 2018, representing one call every 12 seconds.

The number of calls has increased by 6.8 per cent in the last four years, with non-triple zero calls still high at 360,365 taken alone in 2018.

All triple zero calls need to be taken seriously but operators are able to hang up on suspected pranksters and refer them to the nuisance caller line, an automated voice message warning callers about the impacts of false reporting.

Call takers can see the phone number of the caller, even if the phone is on private but some people choose to remove their SIM card or call from phone boxes to avoid detection.

Mr Bent says these types of hoax and nuisance calls increase during school holidays, “It seems to be more children that do the hoax or that deliberately take the SIM card out and make a call.”

But Dr Briony Towers, a children’s disaster-risk researcher at RMIT University and researcher with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, says there is a difference between young children who call triple zero and adolescents.

“There’s differences between hoax calls which are pranks and a call that a child makes because they don’t fully understand what is or isn’t an emergency,” Dr Towers says.

Dr Towers, who is part of a national body that represents emergency call-taking agencies nationwide, says there is a lack of data to show the prevalence of children making triple zero calls.

“There’s nothing in place to gather data on when children make those calls, whether it’s a hoax call or the child has made a genuine mistake,” Dr Towers says.

As part of the Triple Zero Awareness Work Group, Dr Towers is preparing to relaunch a game that educates children about calling triple zero.

The Triple Zero Kids’ Challenge is an interactive game, helping children to identify and report on emergencies.

Dr Towers says the game, which can be played online or on a smartphone, builds practice and confidence in children and teaches them about when to call and not to call triple zero.

“Children in kindergarten and prep don’t necessarily know about triple zero or when to call it.

“A lot of the ways that these programs are designed just highlights how important it is to investigate how well they accommodate the realities of children’s everyday lives, what children already know and how they interpret new information,” Dr Towers says.

Before launching the original version, Dr Towers conducted a case study at one Victorian Primary School, which explored the game’s impact on children’s understanding of hoax calling.

Not all of the students were familiar with the term ‘hoax call’ but all of the students in the study could identify when it was most appropriate to call triple zero.

“When they’ve had a chance to learn about what that number is for, they do understand that making hoax calls is wrong and has serious consequences,” the researcher says.

Teachers involved in the study said the learning objectives and activities in the game closely align with The Australian Curriculum, but widespread use of the game in classrooms is still unknown.

“Having a nationally funded program, where schools are actually supported to become disaster resilient schools will provide an entry point for things like the Triple Zero Kids’ Challenge,” Dr Towers says.

In some bushfire prone areas teachers may feel “quite a lot of pressure to get it right”, says Dr Towers, which could deter some teachers who do not have the technical expertise to be confident in what they’re teaching.

“We just need to keep lobbying and pushing for increased funding for community engagement with large allocations for programs for children and young people,” Dr Towers says.

Assistant Commissioner Mark Whybro, who has also worked on the relaunch of the game, says educating children about triple zero should be made simple.

“While the game is built to be as engaging as possible with the student, it is also built to be as simple as possible for a teacher to deliver it.

“The whole idea of put the kids down in front of a computer and they play games, it’s education, it is the way of the future, it is how children can learn,” Assistant Commissioner Whybro says.

Mr Whybro understands the “pressure cooker” of a triple zero call centre, as the former Chief Superintendent of the New South Wales Fire Brigades dispatch centre. He says bushfire seasons always saw a rise in nuisance calls.

“Someone used triple zero to ask if they should take the washing off the line.”

Now at Fire and Rescue New South Wales, the Assistant Commissioner says digital interaction is the way of the future when it comes to educating children about the emergency sector.

“Emergency services need to keep up,” Assistant Commissioner Whybro says.

The next version of the game is set for a national launch before the end of the school year, when teachers are writing reports and on search for interactive class activities.

The new version will give students more gameplay options with contemporary design.

The team worked on writing the scripts and creating a new list of emergency scenarios, before working with a professional children’s scriptwriter to simplify the content, which was like comparing “chalk and cheese”, says Mr Whybro.

Greater location technology is also on the agenda for triple zero nationwide to better locate alleged perpetrators, with the Turnbull Government issuing a request for tender in June 2018 to deliver advanced mobile location technology.

Triple zero call operators can currently pinpoint the location of a caller to within 100 metres based on the phone towers around them, something that proves a challenge if the caller is in a remote location.

Melvin Bent says location technology would decrease the frequency of hoax or nuisance callers but he is unaware of such technology making its way to his centre anytime soon.

Telstra is currently responsible for operating the emergency call service centres, with the Australian Media and Communications Authority (ACMA) being the national regulator and monitor of the service.

A spokesperson for ACMA said discussions are in place “for the implementation of a new internet protocol platform to facilitate next generation capabilities including advanced mobile location technology”.

With educating children about triple zero and holding hoax callers accountable with increased location technology being priorities for ESTA, Mr Bent says the results should ease the strain on Victoria’s emergency services.

“If we are occupied with you because your computer’s not working and the next person is actually in need of help that could be their last 10 seconds to let us know what’s going on.”

If you require immediate emergency assistance please contact 000.