When calling an ambulance, every second counts. So when an ambulance service in South Africa wanted to speed up their response time, who did they call? Psychologists, of course.
Looking to reduce any obstacles that delayed operators from obtaining key facts from callers, Claire Penn at the University of the Witwatersrand and her colleagues initially expected language issues to be a big tripwire – the officially English-language service was based in South Africa’s Western Cape, where four in five people favour Afrikaans or isiXhosa.
But in fact, the researchers found that the multi-lingual call handlers already dealt with this deftly. Instead, the time delays were stemming from more conversational factors. For example, call handlers redundantly asked “What is your emergency?”, and used the identifying term “Emergency Medical Services”, which often had to be clarified as the place for ambulances. Call handlers who tried to save time by not naming themselves ran against callers who wanted to know who they were speaking to. And even in these life and death situations, some calls would fall into familiar – but time-consuming – greeting sequences: “How are you?”, “Fine, and yourself?”, “I’m fine, thank you.”
Penn’s team used their analysis to produce a simple two-part protocol for starting calls: “Ambulance service, Simon speaking” that avoided these diversions, and in a trial over one 12-hour shift involving 1100 calls they demonstrated this new protocol led to an average four-second shortening of call length compared with the previous shift.
Penn and her team concluded that “communication factors enable accuracy and reduced response time and should be acknowledged as a priority in training and monitoring. Shaving off even a few seconds between answering the call and the dispatch of the ambulance may have life-saving consequences in this context.”
Penn, C., Koole, T., & Nattrass, R. (2016). When seconds count: A study of communication variables in the opening segment of emergency calls Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1177/1359105315625357
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