Working 999 – helping people for a living

Your Voice


For the first of what will be a series of different workplace feature articles, we visited and spoke with some of our BT 999 call-centre members at work… 

If you’re ever unfortunate enough to have to call 999, it will be a CWU-grade worker from one of seven BT sites in the UK who will pick up the phone and say: “Emergency, which service?”

Trained to deal promptly, efficiently and sensitively with people in all manner of distress, around 1,000 work in this role across all regions of the UK, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Recently, the CWU negotiated a new attendance patterns agreement with the company’s Voice Services management, which provide a multitude of duty options for our 999 members and include three-day and four-day week patterns as well as part-time duties. In a membership ballot, the plan was endorsed by an 88.4 per cent majority, and in the duty-selection process, almost 98 per cent of 999 workers were granted their first choice of duty option. (Full details of the agreement were reported in the Autumn 2023 Edition of Voice, Page 20).

CWU national officer Allan Eldred, who led the negotiations on behalf of the union, explains: “The new system came in last month and we’re sure it will significantly improve members’ work-life balance and give them more certainty over what their duties will be going forward, as well as fully protecting their Sunday, Bank Holiday and Night Attendance remuneration arrangements.

“As a group of workers, our 999 members perform an extremely vital and highly sensitive role and, as a union, we were determined to get this negotiation right – and judging by the feedback so far, we think this new agreement strikes just the right balance.”

We were invited to the Midlands, where we met and spoke with the 999 workers’ CWU rep Manpreet Benning, duty manager Pete Fothergill and several members of the approximately 130-strong team, starting with Manpreet, who told us that she has been with BT for seven years and worked for the company’s Consumer and EE customer services before moving over to the 999 service in 2022, and then taking up the role of CWU workplace rep in July.

“I wanted to be a union rep because I’m really passionate about helping people and I wanted to try to get some things resolved,” she says. “We work well together here with the company and this new negotiated arrangement on the shifts has been very well received. Members have told me they’re glad to be able to now bunch their days off together more and that it’s really helped them with having a more settled and predictable duty pattern.”

New recruits spend two weeks in the classroom, on a mandatory training course led by an accredited tutor. There is a substantial amount of procedural knowledge needed and the course is tightly regulated in full accordance with all of the appropriate current formal requirements. On successful completion of this course, the individual comes into the incident room and begins a second two-week period – called ‘GRADBAY’ – which is also led by an accredited trainer. During this period, the new recruit is accompanied by an experienced colleague (similar to the ‘workplace coach’ or ‘buddy’ in other companies).

On the successful completion of this four-week process, the recruit undergoes a final call check, and then comes onto shifts and starts taking calls on their own.

Sitting beside Nabila Batool and talking in short snatches in between her calls – coming through every minute or so – she says that she has been working in this role for “just over a year” and was previously employed in healthcare and as a key worker for victims of domestic abuse. Although clearly busy, Nabila says that this is not a particularly hectic period, saying: “It’s green at the moment,” in reference to the colour-coding system at the top of her screen.

“These let us know what category the current situation is,” she says, adding that it ranges from green, through amber and red and up to black – black being the most serious, which would show during a major incident, such as a large explosion, fire or other civic emergency.

Calls taken at the centre could come from anywhere in the UK – or in UK seas – and our call takers need to pass on the emergency to the appropriate service and region, to which BT’s systems are directly linked. Nabila says that, if the caller doesn’t speak, “we ask the person to tap the handset, cough, or make a noise. Sometimes it’s an accidental call, or the person could be incapacitated.” Sometimes a callback is organised, which is done by the emergency service itself.

Something that is extremely important to the team here is the support that is available after a particularly upsetting conversation – which can be quite traumatic for the member taking the call. Speaking with the CWU rep Manpreet again, she says that the saddest instances are when there is a fatality, such as a frantic parent whose child is in distress, or a caller who dies while on the phone.

“Obviously these are always so, so, sad for the caller and family, but also can be upsetting for our member on the call,” she says, adding: “Different types of emergency calls can trigger people in different ways. If a call has been upsetting, then afterwards, the person is allowed to come off for a bit. And we have the employee assistance programme (EAP) which is specifically designed for this purpose.”

Colleagues Grace Humphreys and Numaan SIhal are able to take a few minutes out to talk with us as well, Numaan saying: “It’s very rewarding to be able to help people and this is why I wanted to do this job – to help the public,” while Grace agrees, saying that this was her prime motivation as well. She continues: “When I first started, I found there are things that took me by surprise, but you become more resilient. And it’s always good to know that if I do get upset, there is that support, that I can take some time and I can talk about it with somebody.”

They each tell us of a recent instance when they’ve become upset – a mum with a baby struggling to breathe and a dad whose young son had a serious injury – and about how they can access and make use of the support provided. But also of the mutual support among colleagues and the resilience that builds up with experience, enabling these highly dedicated and conscientious workers to cope with such a demanding job.

In conversation with manager Pete Fothergill, he makes the key point that 999 workers are “taking calls from people on the worst day of their lives” and goes on to talk of the “resilience training” and the “need to give people the right coping techniques,” then, in appreciation of the workforce, adds: “You have to be the right person for this job – it’s a critical job and some people are right for it and some people aren’t.”