I always wondered what it would have been like to be a nee naw dispatcher in New York on September 11th. Yesterday, hopefully, is the closest I will ever come to finding out. 7th July started off as a normal day. Between seven am and ten to eight there was the usual steady trickle of miscarriages, labours, old women fallen out of bed and the like. Then, at 0853 we took the first call, from the Fire Brigade. This was rather sparse in information — there had been an explosion at Liverpool Street, could we have an ambulance (just the one) on standby as a precaution. I didn’t take too much notice, things explode all the time, it was probably, I thought, a stink bomb or something. The result of prolonged call taking is that you automatically assume anything you hear is less serious than the caller thinks.
Then a call taker sitting opposite me took a call from a member of staff at Aldgate East station.
“There’s been an explosion,” she said, “there are walking wounded coming out with cuts and soot and debris in their hair.”
The woman was panicking, it took a while for the call taker to get any information out of her, and while they were on the phone, call takers on the other side of the room took calls from Aldgate, King’s Cross and Russell Square. We started to wonder what on earth was going on — initially, I thought that there had been one explosion and the authorities couldn’t get their act together and decide where it was; when this hypothesis fell flat on its face, someone offered up the power surge theory. Since a power surge would potentially affect every station, this was cause for ambulance bigwigs to declare a major incident. Senior members of staff (not me) donned yellow, fluorescent jackets and set up a Major Incident Desk in the PTS office. The dispatch desks went crazy. The resource centre rang up all those who had the day off and asked them to come in. People ran round the room flapping bits of paper at each other. Office based members of staff left the office and came to the control room to add to the sudden bustle of activity.
At about 0920, I took a call from a rather flustered sounding policewoman from Paddington police station.
“There’s been an incident at Edgware Road station!” she said.
“An explosion?” I said.
“How did you know?” she said, confused.
I explained that there had been explosions reported at umpteen other stations too and we thought it was due to a power surge. At that point, we didn’t know how many explosions there had been, we only knew how many stations were affected (Liverpool Street, Aldgate, Aldgate East, Kings Cross, Russell Square, and now Edgware Road and Paddington) so we thought the situation was even worse than it was.
Inevitably, at this point, conjecture regarding bombs began. The predictable jokes about revenge of the French were bandied about. Suddenly, there was a small surge in call levels, with about six call takers simultaneously receiving abandoned calls from Tavistock Square, between Euston and Russell Square. (An abandoned call means someone dials 999, says “ambulance” and then hangs up). No-one was able to get through to their caller on ringback, but some of the callers had said something about an exploding bus to the operator before asking for the ambulance. Seconds later, the police informed us what had happened to the bus. The calls had all been dropped because the police had ordered all the buildings to be evacuated immediately. This, of course, put paid to the power surge theories.
We were allowed out of the room for ten minutes each to perform essential functions. After calling my girlfriend and my mother (neither of whom had any idea anything was wrong, and wondered what on earth I was talking about), I ran to the mess room and checked an internet site, where my friends were posting messages to say they were okay and advertise for news of anyone who hadn’t checked in. I was relieved to learn everyone was accounted for and posted my own message to let everyone know I was okay but working very hard and going to be incommunicado for the rest of the day. This gave me a couple of minutes left to catch the news, which was slowly catching up (it was still talking about Aldgate East and power surges at this point) and stock up on the free sandwiches, chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks that had been provided in lieu of lunch breaks. (It is a good job we do not get Major Incidents every day — I would get really fat). I stuck my head outside nee naw control and I was pleased to see we had been turned into Fort Knox with a battalion of nee naws blocking the road, half the police force eating sandwiches on the steps and a big marquee full of important goings on.