You need to have discipline, a cool head and six weeks' training to take 999 calls, writes Hazel Davis

There's almost nothing as terrifying as answering the phones on your first day at work, but imagine if the person at the other end was relying on you for survival? You can't hear what they're saying, you can't make out where they are and then the line goes dead. It's your job to rescue them. It's all in a day's work for employees at the UK's incident-handling centres.

Calls to 999, the emergency service number, go through two main service providers, BT and Cable and Wireless. They are answered by telecoms employees, graded and then diverted to the relevant centres where details of the caller's location are transferred to screens. The 999 service was launched in London in July 1937. It spread to Glasgow in 1938 and was introduced in most large towns by 1948.

According to BT's 999 policy manager John Medland, the company receives 28 million 999 calls each year. Perhaps more interesting is the news that half of these calls never get put through because they are either hoaxes or accidental calls. Medland says: "Our staff go through a three-week training period, after which they are closely monitored, and three or four months later assessed for full efficiency. We have a 40-page procedure book and a menu service which means that call-handlers are able to identify a hoax call or a child in genuine distress."

Medland also points out that, because 999 overcomes a keypad lock on a mobile phone, most of the accidental calls are from pocket-rattling mobiles.

Anthea Orchard is part of the team receiving the calls diverted to the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service. She has worked in a control room for the past four years, previously in Hertfordshire. After replying to an ad in her local paper, Orchard undertook a six-week training course at the mobilising centre.

"In the beginning, the training days were made up of lecture-type lessons where you had to listen carefully and take notes," she says. "We then moved on to more practical things like learning how to use the technology for mobilising the fire appliances.

"Once we were familiar with that, we received intensive coaching on our call-handling skills. Within four to five weeks we were allowed to start taking calls, starting with basic administration calls from fire stations, moving swiftly on, when the nerves subsided, to taking our first fire calls."

After the initial recruits course, Orchard was posted on a "watch" for a probationary period of almost two years. "Throughout this period I was mentored by a colleague, working to a trainee's syllabus, for which I had to take a competence examination every quarter," she says. She was assessed for NVQ purposes and now holds an NVQ Level 3 Emergency Fire Services, Control Operations.

People are often calling the emergency services for the first time or need to relay something acutely distressing so a call manager must be adept at extracting key information quickly without intimidating or upsetting the caller. It's fair to say there's a personality type required for this job and if you get flustered or panicky in a tense situation then it's not the job for you.

Orchard says she had to be very disciplined from the word go. "I had to put extra work in at home due to the amount of revision we had to do, and then I had to adjust to working the shift system, ensuring I got the right amount of rest prior to a shift. I had always worked 9am to 5pm, five days a week,so this was like nothing I had ever done before. But it's amazing how quickly you adjust and it's very much a team. You're never on your own in a situation and you're not made to feel silly if you ask for help."

Orchard doesn't regret her choice. "It might seem bad to enjoy a job so much in which everything we deal with is as a result of someone else's misfortune but I love the work I do. The job never becomes boring and I know that I am contributing to making a difference in the community."

For more information on working in an emergency-services control room visit or