What advice would you give to us, as members of the public, on how to be the best possible 999-callers?

I’ve come up with a list of “commandments” for you. These come with the caveat that we know that when you’re calling 999, it’s an emergency and you’re going to be distressed and unprepared, so we don’t expect you to be perfect. But, y’know, it helps if you try!

1. Know Thy Address. When you call, make sure you have a full street name, house number, area name and postal district, and any important information and landmarks which might help us find it. If this isn’t possible (for instance, if you have just witnessed a traffic accident, you might not know the name of the road you are on), call from a telephone box or other landline (ask in a shop or knock on someone’s door) — we can trace the call. We can’t trace the exact location of a mobile phone.

2. Know Thy Problem. We get loads of from receptionists and security guards who have been asked to get an ambulance for someone else without being told what is happening. An ambulance is unlikely to be dispatched until they’ve told us what the problem is. This is because a) we triage calls according to importance, and we don’t know how important it is if we don’t know what is happening b) we don’t just have ambulances, we have helicopters and cars and bicycles and Emergency Care Practictioners (and telephone advisors!) which we might dispatch depending on what has happened c) ambulance crews don’t like entering dangerous situations, and like to know what they are going to before they go blazing in.

Emergency Care

3. Stay With Thy Patient. You’ll need to answer a few questions about the patient and possibly perform a bit of first aid, so it really helps if the person who is calling is sitting right next to the patient.

4. Thou Shalt Not Waffle. Give clear, concise answers to questions and don’t be scared to say “I don’t know” if you don’t know! Now is not the time to give the patient’s entire life story.

5. Thou Shalt Not Hang Up Until Thou Is Told. On TV 999 calls are over in seconds. In real life, you will be on the phone for approximately 2-3 minutes or until the ambulance arrives. Don’t hang up until the call taker says you can. Remember that the length of the call has absolutely no bearing on how long the ambulance will take to arrive, and that what the call taker is telling you is important.

6. Trust Thy Call Taker. I reckon I spend about half an hour a day listening to callers “helpfully” telling me things like: It’s an emergency! You’d better get here fast! Stop asking questions and just send the ambulance. You could send one from Woolwich Ambulance Station, it’s just around the corner. I think you’re going to need the fire brigade too. Tell them to drive fast! Hurry up! Etc. Remember that we have been taking these calls day in, day out, for years. We don’t need you to tell us how to do our jobs.


7. Meet Thy Ambulance. If you have a spare person at the scene, get them to stand in the middle of the road and do an impression of a windmill. The location may be obvious to you, but it is not always obvious to the ambulance crew, and while ambulance crews are usually local, they’re not always.

8. Keep Thy Phone Switched On. Or give an alternative number. We often need to call people back for more information.

9. Thou Shalt Keep A Civil Tongue In Thy Head. Yes, we know you’re panicking, but really, there’s no need to be rude. Call the call taker an effing moron once too often and the blue flashing lights you see next will be attached to a police car!

10. Know Thy First Aid. We can give you instructions over the phone, but don’t wait until you are kneeling over a comatose relative to learn CPR. Ask your employer or St John Ambulance about going on a First Aid course.