Inches from death

It takes great people skills, training, care and stamina to field 999 calls – and Bedfordshire Police Call Handler Debbie Mawdsley has the lot.Debbie Mawdsley2

Debbie works challenging and often fast-moving 12 hour shifts for the force, but she wouldn’t change her job for the world. Here’s why…

“Are you still there?” I asked as the sound of another train hurtling by filled my headset. “Are you still there?” I repeated, trying to remain as calm as I possibly could…

“Yes, still here” came the eventual reply, and I breathed another sigh of relief. “Then just keep talking to me, stay away from the track and look for the torch lights, since my colleagues are on their way,” I reassured him.

Three more trains passed within inches of him, but it felt like many more as I kept him talking and double-checking he was still there. My aim was to gain his confidence, keep him safe and give Force Control Room colleagues time to pin-point his location.

It turned out to be a field intersected by a main line and minutes later this poor chap – who dialled 999 saying he was about to fling himself under the next London express – was being safely led away by officers.

I sometimes think about him. Did he intend to kill himself, or was it simply a cry for help? I really don’t know to be honest, but I’m glad I could help, and hope he is happier now. Sometimes life becomes too much for all of us.

Making a difference is why I joined Bedfordshire Police and it’s a sad fact of life that we receive many calls from people who are either at the end of their tether, have mental health issues, or both. Some are tearful, some are angry, some are lonely and many are a combination of all these things.

These calls come in addition to all the other 999s we receive – about everything from major collisions and burglaries to fights and robberies in our town centres. It can be dynamic, fast-moving and you never know what’s coming next.

Last year we dealt with 450,000 calls, 7,500 of which were hoaxes or repeats. As someone who works at the sharp end that’s 7,500 too many, since each one prevents us speaking to someone who may have a genuine emergency.

I recall an 84-year-old man with dementia who was completely distraught because he genuinely thought he was a child again and couldn’t find his parents. There was real fear in his voice and concern as to what he might do next. We dispatched an officer to reassure him. It helps that our officers now receive training in areas like dementia, but we need to work with other agencies as well to find solutions.

As a mum I understand how much little children love Halloween, but as a call handler I know how genuinely terrifying it can be for some elderly people to have kids – particularly teenagers- knocking at their doors demanding sweets or cash. Some pensioners have never heard of Halloween, let alone understand what it is, and it’s really important that young people and parents take this on board.

Every year officers have to deal with cases of houses being pelted with eggs and flour and we hear at first hand just how much damage and hurt that kind of anti-social behaviour can cause.

Christmas Day can be an emotional time too, and I vividly remember one elderly man ringing because he was just so lonely. We chatted for a while about East Enders. I could see from my systems there were no other calls waiting, and I think that small gesture made his day.

Needless to say we had less patience for a caller who rang in a drunken state complaining his wife had burnt the turkey. It was the same for the caller who wanted answers to his Trivial Pursuit questions.

The child who rang to say Santa had got his presents incorrect was mildly amusing – but in truth hoax, nuisance or misguided calls are the last thing we need when we are busy.

Some callers are just abusive and it can be upsetting, although you develop a thick skin and learn to deal with it. We have the power to trace, block and deal with these individuals and we are becoming increasingly robust.

Boxing Day and the New Year period will be really busy, particularly with fights and domestic incidents. They tend to be fuelled by alcohol, families spending too much time together and the disappointment that festivities didn’t go as planned.

But despite the challenges, and the prospect of more to come as police budgets are stretched, I wouldn’t want to give up my job unless I absolutely had to. I think helping people is in my blood and it’s the same for the vast majority who work here at Bedfordshire Police.

Debbie has worked in the Bedfordshire Police Force Control Room for 13 years. We are currently welcoming applications for full time Force Control Room Operators – find out more here.



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