They are the first to be sought after during emergencies. As the first point of contact for people in distress, those manning the helplines are perceived as persons who can provide solutions as quickly as possible.

Their job requires them to be patient in the face of continuous calls, many of them from persons who are angry, agitated and seeking immediate results. Volunteering to be a helpline staff could often be exasperating as some of the callers tend to use harsh words and drop names.

One of the busy helplines in the city is that of the Chennai Corporation – 1913. It is abuzz with calls almost round the clock, making it difficult for the staff to take even a short break.

S. Lavanya, a helpline staff, said that besides calls pertaining to streetlights, garbage removal and procedure for booking freezer box, the residents also call to complain about a host of other utilities not related to the Corporation such as water supply, LPG refills, power failure and disruption in telephone line.

Another helpline operator V .Karthik said, “Each of us may have to attend 40 to 50 calls per shift. On rainy days, the number of calls touches 100. I won't even have time to register complaints.”

Callers would get irritated particularly when there is a delay in delivering freezer box. But, members of staff have to be polite, he said.

The helpline operators at Tamil Nadu Electricity Board's computerised complaint redressal centre – 155333 – suffer the most be it summer or winter. They said that each call would have to be attended as quickly as possible and handled within a minute. Otherwise, the line would get congested.

Helpline operator S. Mythili said, “We provide a complaint number to the consumer and transfer the complaint to the area concerned. Working during nights is difficult as calls pour in. I have to often deal with persistent callers demanding restoration of electricity supply.”

Her colleague C. Balachandran said, “I have to be quick and on the know-how about the power situation online to reply accordingly. Some of them call back to apologise or thank me for the service. I am so influenced by the helpline calls that I say ‘Vanakkam TNEB' even while taking calls on my mobile phone.”

Counsellors manning AIDS Prevention and Control Project's toll-free helpline – 18004191800 – said that some calls could be disturbing. According to one of the counsellors, Gaddam Vishnuvardhan, women often have problems while answering queries about sexuality. “If it is genuine query, they answer. Otherwise the call will be transferred to a male counsellor,” he said.

Counsellors take a break or discuss with colleagues the difficult calls to relieve their stress, he added.

Staff at the elders' helpline – 1253 – have to attend to senior citizens' problems. S. Santhosh Kumar said, “I try to reconcile the abandoned elderly with their family. Even if I forget, many people recognise me and thank me. Though this job pays less, I am glad to be working here for the past two years as helping the aged makes a lasting difference in their lives.”

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