State of emergency: Keeping Ireland’s essential lines open during a pandemic

7 Oct 2020

Michael Kelly, head of operations, ECAS. Image: BT Ireland

Ireland’s Emergency Call Answering Service is a vital lifeline at any time, but how do you keep a system like this up and running during a crisis like Covid-19? We spoke to Michael Kelly of BT Ireland to find out.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland, the country’s Emergency Call Answering Service (ECAS) saw a jump in demand. “Normally in a 24-hour period we would handle about 6,000 calls per day. It doesn’t really matter which day of the week it is, it’s always around 6,000,” explained Michael Kelly, head of operations for ECAS at BT Ireland. “As soon as Covid kicked in in the middle of April, our volumes increased by 50pc per day.”

BT’s ECAS operation has been connecting 112 and 999 calls to the appropriate emergency services for the past decade. It answers 2.3m calls a year, typically in less than a second, and guarantees 99.999pc availability. These high standards for public safety could not be compromised, even in the face of widespread disruption.

The pandemic-related surge not only saw an uptick in the volume of emergency calls but also an increase in the length of each call, and Kelly said the workload of those keeping this service running practically doubled.

To make the situation even more challenging, ECAS staff were also subject to the same Covid-19 concerns and restrictions affecting the whole country. On-site staff at the two centres in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal and Navan, Co Meath would have to do their utmost to prevent any spread of coronavirus and act accordingly if any symptoms developed. This meant making allowances for social distancing, preparing for absences due to sickness and social isolation, and getting ready for remote work in the event of a country-wide shutdown.

With no room for error and downtime not an option, the ECAS team had to adapt dramatically and rapidly.

Rapid response

Because of the need for high security and constant availability, ECAS was always set up to be an on-site team and it was never thought that the service’s highly trained call takers could work remotely. “It’s true to say that we didn’t have a remote working solution whatsoever. It was always intended that staff would work from centres, from buildings,” said Kelly.

As an essential emergency service, ECAS had contingency plans. However, these plans were meant to manage a possible epidemic in one part of the country. A global pandemic was not anticipated.

And so, faced with a mounting workload that would have to be managed in a whole new way, the team of 80 responded as ECAS always does: rapidly.

“We basically brainstormed a solution on a Thursday, we built the software on a Friday, we tested it over the weekend and the first live calls were taken on the Monday,” recalled Kelly.

Enabling backroom staff to work from home was straightforward and because ECAS runs over an IP network, emergency calls can feasibly be diverted anywhere. However, residential broadband is highly variable and BT couldn’t risk that affecting any connection or quality.

A minimum requirement was determined and, thankfully, most staff were up to speed and sufficiently stable. However, in those cases where the connection quality wasn’t so assured, BT issued mobile data dongles to help stabilise signals. These wireless connections also provided a failover connection in the event of any breakdown of an employee’s fixed-line broadband.

Working from home, employees could then connect to data centres over a VPN with advanced security protocols.

For on-site work, ECAS opened more buildings to give staff as much space as possible to work safely. A system of staggered shifts was put in place so that the night and day staff would never meet and new recruits were trained at another location, ready to substitute should absenteeism rise. Cleaning is now carried out twice daily and employees disinfect their workstations after each shift.

‘It’s amazing what you can develop quite quickly’

As it stands, ECAS is functioning ‘business as usual’ and is prepared to face further disruption without dropping a call. It has also proven that a competent team can adapt quickly, even if they are starting from scratch. “It’s amazing what you can develop quite quickly. So get that developed straight away,” Kelly advised other teams facing change.

He also challenged organisations to seek ISO certification in business continuity and data security. “Both of those will help to keep your standards up and to make you constantly improve.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.