Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Emergency services call - communication failure.

My local ABC radio station just played the audio of a call to "000" emergency services.  The call was from a young woman called Penny Pratt and she was murdered soon after she made this call.  You can listen to the call here.

I've been working with medical students all day today, providing feedback on their communication skills, so perhaps I'm particularly attuned to communication flaws at this moment if hearing the call.

I don't know any more about the case and I certainly have never worked in the emergency services environment.  I imagine that it must be a fairly challenging communication environment, but I have never experienced it myself.  That said, I have worked in a call centre (debt collection for a bank) I teach communication and work with people to resolve conflict.  I understand what it's all about.

It sounds like the worker who took the call had lost sight of the needs and situation of a person calling emergency services and was putting her own needs first.  Empathy was absent.  Here we have a woman hiding in the bush from two men who have put her in fear of her life.  An empathetic person would recognise why the woman calling is whispering and a bit erratic in her communication.  She's in full "fight or flight" mode...she's HIDING IN THE BUSH!  She's not sitting at a desk or standing on the street making a call.  Two men are going to kill her!

The response from the worker who took the call reacts to the whispering as if the woman calling is speaking quietly to make her life difficult rather than imagining what it would be like to be in fear of your life.

The call quickly escalates into a power play where the operator is complaining that the caller is making it hard for her to do her job.  If it gets too hard, help will be withdrawn.  Details about the street name and suburb had been clearly stated by Penny Pratt, yet the operator asked for them to be repeated and then asked a question, citing a different suburb.  Instead of diffusing the emotion, the operator's tone, as well as her words, create conflict.  Suddenly Penny Pratt is facing conflict on two fronts - one she is running from and one from the person she has turned to for help.

This poor woman called "000" twice, asking for police assistance.  Neither of the calls were referred onto the police.  She was found dead soon afterwards.

I understand that there would be certain key pieces of information which need to be gained by the emergency services operator so that the call can be passed onto the relevant service.  However, in this situation, a person who is really listening to the words as well as the context would be able to hear that the police needed to get there very quickly.

This is all obvious, basic communication skills.  I am wondering what emotional support is given to the staff so that they have enough resilience to ensure they focus on the needs of the caller rather than their own needs.

I've called "000" on a few occasions, but never when my life is under threat.  I've usually been a bystander reporting violence to police or calling an ambulance for an ill commuter travelling on the same train as me.  Regardless of the fact that my life hasn't been under threat, I have an expectation that calling "000" will help me, efficiently and without fuss - not put me through the process wringer.

It must be awful for the call centre operator to know what happened to Penny Pratt not long after this conversation took place.

I hope that her employer focusses on improving training and support to staff rather than punishment or performance management.  I'd love to talk to the call centre operator and find out what was going on for her...what was the last call she'd taken?  What had happened to her that day? That week?  What else had she heard that day? Had her supervisor chipped her about something? Had she had some bad news? We're all human and carry our human responses into everything.

Mistakes, however tragic, all provide a learning opportunity.  I hope it's taken up.


  1. Very well said, and thank you for looking past the obvious. The overall system needs to be considered as well.

  2. Thank you for reading and contributing to the discussion. I think it's important to look more deeply and think about what can be learned when things go wrong.