Hell-o, You’ve Reached Emergency Services

After a dozen years in this country, I finally had the opportunity to dial 999, which is the UK equivalent of 911. It’s not that I was looking forward to, or even expecting, this event. After all, I lived many years in the US without ever having to call 911, though I did make liberal use of the predecessor of 911, which was running to get your mother. But that’s for another time.

This is how it happened:
My wife and I were on our customary postprandial constitutional when, on our way into town, we noticed a man sort of leaning, crouching and/or collapsing against the doorway of an empty shop. He didn’t appear to be in distress, and seemed intent on his conversation with some tiny, invisible person, so we left him to it.
About twenty minutes later, as we returned from our walk, the man was in the same location, but was prone on the sidewalk. I took a cautious look to see if he was breathing and, finding that he was, we retreated to a safe distance to decide what to do.

In your dreams

During this time (and, I have to assume, the twenty minutes previous) several people walked past him with varying degrees of curiosity, but none of them stopped to help. Two young men did, however, attempt to get the gentleman to his feet by leaning him against the doorway, but he again collapsed into a jumbled heap. I told them I was about to call for help so they went on their way.

Since the man was not spouting blood or having a seizure, we decided that it might be overkill to tie up the 999 line, so I called 101, instead. This is the non-emergency number and, after the phone rang for a very long time, I got a recording that basically said no one in the office could be arsed to answer the phone and why didn’t I go to their website and tell them what the problem was.
So, feeling they had left me no choice, I dialled 999. After a few rings, a chipper woman answered:
“Hell-o, you\’ve reached emergency services.”
This was followed by a pregnant pause so I launched into my spiel:
“Hi, I\’m on the Bishopric in Horsham and there is a man lying on the sidewalk. He has been there for over twenty minutes, he does not appear to be in any distress but he is unable to stand up.”
This was followed by another pause, then: “Which service do you require: fire, ambulance or police?”
Since he wasn’t spouting flames and didn’t appear in danger of imminent death, I said, “Police.”
So the line was switched and another woman asked, “What is your emergency?”
“I’m on the Bishopric in Horsham and there is a man …” I’m not typing it again; go read the previous paragraph.
This woman asked a few more questions, then announced it was not their problem and that I really wanted an ambulance. Then, instead of transferring me, she told me to hang up and dial 999 again.
So I did.
“Hell-o, you’ve reached emergency services.”
“Hi, I’m on the Bishopric…” You know the rest.
Then she asked: “Which service do you require: fire, ambulance or police?”
I took a breath and said, “Ambulance.”
Soon, I was connected to another chipper woman who asked: “What is your emergency?”
And I said…come on, you all know the words by now, sing along with me: “I’m on the Bishopric…”
“Where are you?” the woman asked as soon as I finished.
“On the Bishopric.”
“But where?”
“In Horsham.”
“What street?”
“The Bishopric.”
“But what is the name of the road?”
“The Bishopric.”
“Oh. That’s the road? I don’t know the area.”
This was when I started to suspect I was speaking to call centre in Mumbai staffed by excellent English-speakers.

999 operators, somewhere in Mumbai

“Ask him if he’s okay.”

“I’m pretty sure he’s not.”
“Well, ask him.”
To which I replied: “Ma’am, I am neither a hero nor a doctor, nor am I competent enough to deal with an emergency, that’s why I’m calling you!” Well, in my head I said that. In the real world, I approached the man with no small amount of trepidation—was he violent, would he strike out, did he have a weapon—and asked how he was doing. He mumbled something, so I backed away to safe distance, satisfied.
“He’s conscious, but he doesn’t look at all well.”
“Is he sick? Is he a diabetic?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, ask him!”
By now the chipper woman was not so chipper, so I complied.
The man mumbled that he was not sick, or a diabetic but that he had to get home. His home was only about a mile away, but short of carrying him, there was no way he was going to make it. I informed the woman of this.
“Can you get him a cab?”
“And why don’t I just bundle him into my own car and take him out for coffee and a bite to eat,” I thought. But to the woman, I just said, “No.”
The conversation went on like this for some time, with me occasionally ordered to ask the man some inane question and I realized that, counting the twenty minutes our walk had taken, this man had been lying there for nearly an hour. In the US, I imagined, within 5 minutes of making such a call, there would be twenty officers on the scene with guns drawn and 127 lawyers chasing after them, but here, we were no closer to getting any sort of help for him, and the woman I was requesting assistance from seemed set on doing everything she could shy of sending actual help.
Then, as I was once again interrogating the man at her request, an ambulance pulled up.
“It’s okay,” I told the woman, “an ambulance just arrived.”
“It did?” she asked, sounding at once surprised and mildly indignant.
We said our good-byes after that, and she left me with the feeling that she was not happy with the outcome and that it was somehow my fault, as if I had surreptitiously sneaked in an ambulance behind her back. But the paramedics took charge and, unlike myself, seemed fully competent at handling the situation, so we wandered home.
It was an unusual but educational experience, and now I know that, if I ever find myself prone on the sidewalk in urgent need of attention, I shall dial the number for a local taxi company instead of 999; it will be much quicker.

8 thoughts on “Hell-o, You’ve Reached Emergency Services

  1. Enjoyed that story… but gather that neither the man nor yourself enjoyed the incident. But it's one of those times in life when looking back is actually a funny story… and look! from reading your last paragraph, you even learned something from it.

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  2. Thanks! And thanks for reading it–it was a bit long. I always try to learn something from such situations; it makes them worthwhile. The other thing I like to do is laugh at them, the sooner the better 😉

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  3. God that's appalling. Sometimes they act as if the cost of an ambulance is coming out of their own pocket. Bit disappointed we never got to hear what was wrong with him though…..

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  4. Oh, yeah, turns out he was simply very, very drunk. However, he was still in need of assistance; if he was left that all night he likely would have froze to death. And anyone who gets into a state like that really does need some help.

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  5. Sorry – kids' have Google account too! (nd never sign out.)Was going to say – Agree, never one's finest moment but not deserving of neglect either.

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