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Failure to handle emergency calls and mobilise resources in a timely manner

Hazard Knowledge

Fire control room operators should have the knowledge to identify the capabilities and location of all fire and rescue service resources and specialist equipment. This will aid them when making decisions throughout any call process. When fire and rescue service controls are busy and information is being gathered from numerous sources, or multiple calls on different incident types are being handled, fire control room operators may have to redeploy resources from one incident to another after carrying out a dynamic risk assessment of each call.

Mobilising systems can display predetermined attendances from their address based gazetteer and incident type list, to display the nearest resource using the Automatic Vehicle Location System (AVLS). However, fire control room operators should monitor, review and update the resource availability and movement. They can also manually override the mobilising system if a certain resource has become available nearer to an incident, reducing blue light movements. The process of receiving emergency calls, identifying the correct address and mobilising the most appropriate resources can be delayed by a number of failures. These include:

  • Failing to communicate effectively with the caller
  • Misrouting emergency calls by call handling agencies
  • Failure in emergency call management

Failure to communicate effectively with the caller

Emergency calls are received in various ways and sometimes under difficult situations. Apart from receiving calls from known agencies, calls from the public can be challenging if not handled properly, which in turn can delay resources getting to an incident.

Initially, when dialling 999/112, callers will automatically be passed through to the call handling agency, who will then pass the call to the correct service.

On connecting a call to the fire and rescue service, the call handling agency can give a verbal handover to the fire control room operators, stating the origin details. Sometimes calls will be passed straight through with no verbal handover. The introduction of call line identification, (CLI or EISEC) Enhance Information Service for Emergency Calls, will give fire and rescue services call information on the number and address of landline telephones or the nearest cell location for mobile phones. This information is very useful but cannot be relied on as the exact location of an incident.

There may be barriers between the caller and the fire control room operators. These can be in various forms; the call could be made from a bad reception area and keep cutting in and out, it may be a Telematics mobile call, there may be a language barrier, or the call could come from a member of the public who is deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind or speech impaired.

These can be very difficult calls for fire control room operators to manage and extract the correct details for resources to be mobilised. The control measures in place support both caller and fire control room operators to obtain the required information. However, inevitably this could increase the fire control room operators' call handling times.

There may be occasions when calls received from call handling agencies have been misdirected or misrouted. This can either be to the wrong agency or to another fire and rescue service.

On being connected to a caller it can become apparent that the call has been misrouted by the call handling agency. The caller may actually require one of the other emergency services (such as police, ambulance or coastguard services) or a different fire and rescue service.

Misrouted calls occur where mobile handsets or exchange phone coverage areas straddle two or more fire and rescue service boundaries. The call handling agency will then nominate a fire and rescue to receive the call. Mobile handsets automatically search for the strongest signal and connect to a base station; this may not necessarily be the nearest to the location of an incident being reported, especially across river estuaries.

However, some new mobile handsets provide enhanced location information when dialling 999/112. The handset operating system can automatically use its built-in location capability to try to obtain a location using GPS or Wi-Fi information. This additional functionality doesn't affect the voice emergency call, which will be processed by the fire and rescue service operator as normal. It will allow the call handling agency to compare the cell coverage from the network and, if geographically consistent, will then replace the network location for any EISEC queries.

Technological advances mean that increasingly an emergency call can be received direct from safety equipment such as that fitted to vehicles. In this instance a voice call from a person may not be the means for asking for assistance.

Failure in emergency call management

Emergency call management processes should be followed in each emergency call. The interaction between fire control room operators and the caller can change depending on the nature of the incident, the caller's location and the predetermined response. Mobilising systems could be able to display pre-populated questions and prompts to fire control room operators during an emergency call. The system can then link to a specific incident type list, so the correct advice is given and calls are all quality assured.

Two existing documents currently provide national emergency call handling guidance to fire control staff:

Fire control staff use this national guidance as a support to underpin their contact with callers.

Fire control room operators are the first point of contact for the entire emergency side of the organisation. It is common to deal with people who are excitable, upset, distressed or confused. To obtain the required information fire control room operators should always be professional, supportive and calm.

Emergency calls are received in various ways and sometimes under extremely difficult situations. Apart from receiving calls from known agencies, calls from the public can be challenging if not handled properly, which in turn can delay the mobilisation of resources to an incident. When receiving call information, fire control room operators should record and input all details accurately into a mobilising system to allow the correct location to be displayed so that the correct resources are mobilised as quickly as possible.

Failure to record relevant information could restrict attending crews when they are undertaking dynamic risk assessment prior to arrival.

Call challenging

During any emergency call, fire control room operators should use their judgement to identify where to call challenge. Call challenge is the targeted questioning of a caller, enabling the control room operator to ascertain whether the attendance requires amendment. They may also identify that the call is not genuine.

Duplicate calls

When additional calls are received regarding an incident to which an attendance has already been mobilised, the fire control room operators must be made aware of any secondary information that may help to locate the incident, or understand what further action is required. This information is then relayed to other oncoming resources.

This information must be attached to the initial call sheet to enable accurate statistical data on the number of emergency calls received for that incident.

If a call indicates that there could be a second incident in the vicinity (the caller does not agree that it is the same incident and this cannot be guaranteed from looking at the map or asking ongoing crews via the radio), a second incident must be recorded and further crews mobilised. It is essential that crews going to both incidents are made aware of this to avoid any confusion and ensure dynamic risk assessments are carried out.


When collating call information, fire control room operators will filter out calls that may not require an attendance in accordance with their risk management plan. These calls could include automatic fire alarm signals, persons locked out, flooding incidents and so on. The control room operator makes an assessment and gives relevant advice to the caller on the appropriate agencies or organisations to contact.

Spike conditions

Spike conditions occur with little or no prior warning. This is when a large number of calls to the same incident are received over a short time period, such as a car fire on the motorway or a large fire with plumes of smoke that can be seen over a wide area. These calls usually stop when emergency resources are in attendance.

Spate conditions

Spate conditions occur where a large number of calls are being received simultaneously for incidents not at the same address. An example of this is flooding caused by severe weather.

Spate conditions can sometimes be planned for. However, this may not always be the case, for example in a Marauding Terrorist Firearms Attack.

Spate conditions can go on for periods of hours or even days.

During this type of activity period, calls can be batched together and handed over to locally established control points for prioritisation and action. Where this occurs it is important that any actions are recorded in the same way as for the hard copy recording.