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Ambulances & Programming

Misconceptions about calling 999


People call 999 for all sorts of reasons. Most calls are genuine, even if misguided; fortunately, it’s only a very small number of calls that are made in bad faith.

That said, we can’t handle everything. Folks often see 999 as being the one-stop shop to call to Deal With It when the proverbial has hit the fan, which isn’t always the case. Sometimes we’re not trained to handle something. Sometimes we don’t have the right access. Sometimes we’re not the right service.

So here we have: Common Public Misconceptions About Calling 999.

For international readers, 999 is the UK’s emergency number, equivalent to 911/112/000/etc.

Also, it’s going to get very boring if I have to add “(for an ambulance)” every time I mention 999, so please assume if I mention 999, I’m talking about calling for an ambulance rather than any other service.

999 is for emergencies.

Before I start, it’s worth restating what 999 is there for. 999, as part of the emergency ambulance service, is there to respond to medical emergencies. What we respond to has expanded over time, but our core purpose is not to be a transport service or a check-up service — it’s to respond to life-threatening situations where someone’s life is at risk in the next few minutes or hours.

That sounds obvious written down, but misunderstandings of that lead to a number of the points below.

999 can give you medical advice.

Probably one of the biggest ones. If you call me and ask for some advice, I can’t give you any. I’m not a doctor, and more importantly I’m not your doctor. I don’t know you, your history, or your situation. Even for really common situations or illnesses, even if I’ve had it myself before and I know what works, I still can’t advise you.

The biggest reason for this is that I’m not clinically trained. (A lot of ambulance 999 operators will tell you “I’m not medically trained” — that’s not strictly true, as we do have emergency medical training, but we’re not clinicians.) Functionally, what that means is that I can’t diagnose what’s going on based on my own judgement — effectively what I do is to compile a list of symptoms and conditions, and use those to prioritise your call; I can’t take that list and say “you’re having X/Y/Z condition and this is what you should do”.

If it’s just advice you want, and you don’t need an emergency ambulance, call 111 — the health advisors there can give you medical advice. If you’re not sure, or you need someone to triage and check, call 999.

999 can look you up.

I don’t have access to your medical records. I don’t need access to your medical records for what I’m there for.

It is generally true that NHS services share records, and as long as you give consent then most providers you look to for help or advice can look those records up to get an idea of your history. However, all I’m doing at 999 is triaging the symptoms you have at the moment and arranging an ambulance, so I don’t need to know about your general history or other records except in specific cases — in which case I’ll ask.

999 knows where you are.

Surprisingly often on high-priority calls when our callers are in a high-stress situation, I’ll ask a question and be faced with a response of “Just get the ambulance here!”

Um… where, exactly, is “here”?

If you’ve called from a landline, the address that landline is registered to has populated on my screen. Great. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the correct address — these details can be overridden before they get to me, and the registered address doesn’t always match the address you’re actually at.

If you’ve called from a mobile, I have a general idea of where you are, but the accuracy can vary wildly from a few metres to several miles. You’re gonna have to tell me exactly where to find you, or I’ll be sending an ambulance crew on a wild chase round half the city for you. Needless to say, they don’t do that.

999 doesn’t know where you are.

Also worth mentioning. Every now and then when we get a hoax call, the caller feels safe in the assumption that as long as they give us the wrong address, we can’t possibly find them. See above. PC Plod takes a distinct interest in us ringing them up and saying “we’ve had a hoax caller from this address, fancy a visit?”

(Just to clarify — a hoax call is a call placed with malicious intent, simply to waste our time, when there is no emergency. This only applies to malicious callers — folks calling in good faith because they think an ambulance is needed, even if it’s eventually triaged as not needing an ambulance, are never regarded as hoaxes.)

999 has to send you an ambulance.

This is just straight-up false. If you’re telling me you have a medical problem and you think you need an ambulance, no problem! I’ll triage what’s going on at the moment and use that to assess whether this is an immediate problem that needs emergency treatment (i.e. ambulance), or whether you’ll be safe to wait a little while longer, or whether you could access medical care some other way or simply make your own way to hospital.

If we’ve triaged what’s happening and an ambulance isn’t necessary right now, telling me that I have to send you one, or that it’s your rights to have one (no really, people try this), will not change whether or not you’re getting one.

999 operators get to decide who gets an ambulance.

Also a fairly common one. When you call 999, I triage what’s happening and what symptoms the patient has. I’m not just making it up as I go based on my own knowledge or experience and asking what I think I should ask — I have a protocol to follow. I’m not following a script, as such, but a protocol that directs what questions I need to ask in what circumstances. That protocol gives me a type code for the call, and that code is what’s used to prioritise the call.

Different services use different protocols, but there’s only a small number in use in the UK and the general principle is the same — a code for a cardiac arrest is always going to be a high category of call; a toothache… will not.

emergency misconceptions
Written on February 13, 2021