In case of emergency: Inside the technology saving lives every day

15 Aug 2019

Mick Kelly, head of ECAS, BT Ireland. Image: Iain White/Fennell Photography

What happens when you dial 999 or 112? Mick Kelly describes the powerful combination of people and technology that connects people to emergency services in an instant.

Ireland’s Emergency Call Answering Service (ECAS) is a critical, life-saving service handling calls from people who are in emergency situations.

On average, the ECAS processes more than 6,000 calls a day and aims to answer more than 98pc of calls in as little as 1.3 seconds. “Most callers will not hear a ringtone,” said Mick Kelly, head of operations for the Emergency Call Answering Centre. “This is so that the caller is processed and gets the help they need as quickly as possible.”

The centre and the ECAS are operated by BT Ireland on behalf of the Department of Communications. Kelly has run the show since 2013, leading a team of about 80 people across two centres in counties Meath and Donegal, ranging from call-takers to management, and technical and back-office staff.

“My team handles all 999 and 112 emergency calls and routes them to one of the four emergency services – Garda, ambulance, fire and coast guard. We handle about 2m calls per annum and the service operates 24/7,” he said.

We spoke to Kelly further on the operations of ECAS and how the service has adapted to new technology.

‘Services around the world are now looking to see how they can interact with social media, and how video and pictures of incidents can be shared with emergency services’

BT has operated the ECAS since 2010. How has the service evolved in that time?

ECAS has evolved in a number of different ways, mainly through advancements in technology and how consumers use technology. In recent years we have added important enhancements like SMS, for example, which enables those with hearing loss to interact with the service or supports people with disabilities where speech may be an issue. Interestingly, SMS tends to have greater coverage so hillwalkers and people working in isolated areas are now opting to use the service as well. Identifying the location of a caller is the ‘holy grail’ of emergency services. It takes the search out of search and rescue.

BT is also responsible for developing Advanced Mobile Location technology, an innovative system that pinpoints the exact location of a mobile phone when the caller dials 999 or 112. This technology is proving to be up to 4,000 times more accurate than previous locations systems.

In addition, we have added Eircode functionality to the system so that a street address can be found quickly for callers who quote it.

BT is constantly monitoring the changing needs and new requirements arising from increased use of technology. A good example of this is that services around the world are now looking to see how they can interact with social media, and how video and pictures of incidents can be shared with emergency services.

What does BT’s role in the ECAS entail?

The role of our team is to ensure that the caller is connected to the correct service and that the location is identified fully. Our call agents are trained to follow a very exact script designed to help route the call quickly.

In addition, the ECAS records the entire emergency call including the part connected to an emergency service. We are collecting meta data of each call identifying exact timings of calls, where they originate and how they are routed. In many cases, this is used by An Garda Síochána for investigative purposes.

What has BT learned from operating the ECAS?

This is a life and death service so every call must be handled to an extremely high standard. It’s primarily a people-based service and our people are highly trained to help people on what may be one of the worst days of their lives, when they or a loved one needs help quickly.

To ensure that this all works requires a lot of technology – technology with a lot of duplication and redundancy built in, but nevertheless technology that relies on a skilled workforce to make it operate fully on an around-the-clock basis. If BT can make essential services like 999 work then it can apply the same rigour to its other services.

What does it mean to be involved in the delivery of such an essential service?

Personally, I find it very rewarding. I have worked in technology for a very long time and this is my first role where you can see a difference being made each and every single day. When people need help, the goal is to help the emergency services to get there quickly.

It’s very rewarding to lead a team that it is dedicated to this goal. I am proud of the people, technology and standards of service that we deliver to the citizens of Ireland, because seeing how technology and people combined can save lives is incredibly motivating.

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.