Lakshmi Krupa spends an hour at the 108 emergency response call centre and finds out how the young team helps in saving lives

“Visit us after 6 p.m.; that’s when we get the most number of calls,” B. Prabhudoss, regional manager, GVK EMRI (Emergency Management and Research Institute) tells me on the phone when I call him to discuss spending an evening at the centre in Chennai. This is where 120 employees work round-the-clock on a shift system, responding to calls on the toll-free number, 108. All calls (including police, fire and accidents) from all the districts of Tamil Nadu are attended to at the centre located within the Government Kasturba Gandhi Hospital in Triplicane.

At Gosha hospital (the hospital’s old name), I am greeted by neat, tree-lined lanes, with exposed brick structures, birds chirping, and a few workers who are busy cleaning up the premises… not at all the picture one has of a hospital. The surprise doesn’t quite end there. The reception area of the GVK EMRI office, a well-lit, bright and cheerful place, fully air-conditioned, could easily pass off as a private firm’s swanky welcome area.

Working in shifts

As I wait in the reception, seated on a bright red sofa, I notice a large poster inviting youngsters to attend GVK’s programme on emergency response. V. Ranjith, a team lead, meets me inside the call centre. “We get approximately 22,000 calls on an average, every day,” he says. At the call centre, I am surrounded by young officers, all in their 20s, wearing headphones and a white coat with ‘108 Emergency’ embroidered on it, taking calls from different corners of the State, with the signature ‘Vanakkam 108’. “We work in shifts and attend calls 24/7 throughout the year. This is a free service available to everyone, and the people who take the calls from our office are called Emergency Response Officers,” Ranjith explains.

From the office, I call 108 to see what happens. Just as I finish dialling the last number, 8, I hear a voice. “That’s our aim. To answer all calls at ‘zero rings’ or at the first ring,” Prabhudoss explains. Next to me, an officer picks up a call. “Vanakkam 108 call panni irukeenga. Enna emergency? (Hello you have called 108, what is your emergency?),” she asks. A pop-up form simultaneously appears on her computer screen with the phone number of the caller. The emergency — a broken bone, the result of a fall, in Erode. The officer gathers all the information, including the address, district, taluk and landmark and zeroes in on three of the closest ambulances to the said location. She calls the EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) on the field to make sure the ambulance is free. The first ambulance is in the middle of another emergency. So she moves on to the second. This one is free. She quickly organises a conference call between her, the field officer in the ambulance and the caller. “Ambulance innum 10 minutes la vandhidum, line-a disconnect pannidunga (Your ambulance will arrive in 10 minutes, disconnect the call),” she says at the end of the conference call.

Her aim is to finish this call as soon as possible and keep the line free for the next caller. “We have set 180 seconds as the target for each call, from the beginning until the assigning of an ambulance,” Ranjith says, “Our previous limit was around 240 seconds, but now there are many who are even able to finish a call within the new limit. Our officers need to take all the correct information within this time frame.” The centre also has doctors, who are constantly in touch with the EMTs in the ambulance. The drivers of the ambulance, who are considered the most important in this set-up, are called ‘pilots’.

Service network

The 108 service has 635 ambulances spread across Tamil Nadu, and receives huge volumes of calls daily — around 22,000, of which around 2,500 are emergencies requiring immediate action. “We usually receive calls regarding labour pain, chest pain, accidents, assault and police emergencies,” Prabhudoss says. Large white boards across the room have several resource numbers. “We don’t just say we can’t help if someone calls us and asks for numbers for emergencies such as a snake in the house, etc. So we have a large pool of such data displayed on our boards, so that officers can give it to anyone who calls,” he adds.

The Police Despatch Officer in the office also calls the nearest police station and informs them of the emergency calls they have received, in case they have to be involved. Prabhudoss adds, “Calls almost always increase after 6 p.m.” The officers also inform me that calls peak during weekends, Sundays in particular, when people return from ‘celebrations’, and also on Monday mornings when people are hurrying to work, and generally during the first ten days of the month. “These are times when people are out on the road, and when a lot of people are out there, accidents are expected,” Ranjith says.

These young officers, who receive calls almost continuously during their shift, are also required to remain calm, as they are constantly dealing with very stressful calls. “They leave their personal phones outside the room in a locker so that their focus will be on the calls. If their own family needs to get in touch with them, they call a team lead and let them know. Can you imagine? People in their 20s, without mobile phones throughout their work day, and most importantly, without Facebook! We have 120 of them here,” Ranjith smiles.

These young graduates are offered intensive two-week training programmes and then slowly inducted into the response centre. “Sometimes, our female officers deal with abusive and drunken calls and almost everyone deals with crank calls. In these cases, they immediately transfer the call to an IVR which explains what 108 is. If we receive abusive calls from the same number repeatedly, we take action against them with a police complaint,” Prabhudoss says.

From pre-hospital care, until the patient is admitted, the 108 service takes care of everything. “We don’t deal with transportation of the dead and return trips from the hospital to a patient’s home,” Prabhudoss says, adding, “And the logic is simple. We want to keep the ambulances free for the people who need to reach hospitals. I can tell you that everyone in this office goes home with a great sense of satisfaction. Every second we spend here we are saving lives.” Prabhudoss talks of an instance where the service (which is also available in 11 more States and two Union Territories in the country) helped a little girl who was kidnapped in Meghalaya. “She dialled 108 and our officer conferenced a call between her and her parents, as her balance was too low to make a call. She is now safely back home,” he says.

A large monitor in the room informs the officers of the number of calls waiting. The call waiting number on the board goes from zero to one as I make my way out of the room and I hear another Vanakkam 108. It’s 7 p.m. But for these officers, the night is still young…