I am trying to shepherd my little party of nine people across the busiest roundabout in the whole of the City of Chichester. All I can say for sure is that I would make a most inefficient sheep-dog.
We have all parked, with some difficulty it being so full, in the Festival Theatre car park and have met up at the car park entrance near the public conveniences – which, after
a bit of a car journey battling the traffic is, well, convenient.
Across the roundabout we can see our destination – Chichester Fire Station. We are
Questers, on a “behind the scenes” visit to the fire station call centre. I know what you are thinking – last week, Glyndebourne, this week a call centre. But don’t speak too soon.
We debate the best way to tackle the roundabout. There are no crossings and the traffic comes swooping round every bend in manic fashion. We take our lives in our hands and venture forth. I am so relieved when we all
make it safely to the other side. I am in charge of this particular visit and I really don’t want to have to report casualties to the next Questers meeting. Or be the subject of a Road Traffic Accident call-out...
Our next problem is finding the way into the call centre. Apparently, we have to follow a brick wall, walk through a narrow passageway and find a yellow telephone on which to announce our arrival. We wander about aimlessly for
a while then a young woman, dressed in Fire Service shirt, arrives in her car in the car park. She kindly responds to my plea for help and leads us to the door with the yellow telephone outside. Like everything, it’s easy when you know how.
Inside we meet Ian and the staff who show us, with quite justifiable pride, how they respond to emergency calls, despatching fire appliances here, there and everywhere across
the county of West Sussex. When we arrive there is only one outstanding call for help – a dog is caught down a badger hole. The rescue of said dog is a tricky business, involving Natural England and the RSPCA. The animal lovers among
us are all agog.
Then a red light flashes and the deputy head teacher of a local primary school is on the line. A fire alarm has gone off! Flick, who takes the
call, is calmness personified. Has the school been evacuated? she asks. Is there any sign of smoke? The answers are “yes” and “no” in that order. “We’re on our way!” she tells the teacher. A few seconds later
we hear the crew mobilising. It’s really very thrilling.
New technology is truly amazing. We can trace on screen the route taken by the fire
crew as it makes its way to the school. We can see a map which shows where every available fire officer lives, should it be necessary to send them off to an emergency. There is a long trace of every conversation, every activity, every decision
taken, every progress report. At the heart are the staff at the call centre, keeping track of it all.
By the time we leave, the situation at the school has been
resolved. It was a false alarm, possibly malicious. We think of all the school children shivering out in the playground while the fire officers checked out their classrooms. How many prank calls do they receive? Too many is the answer.
There is no news on the dog in the badger hole. Ian makes a special call to check it out for us. Sensors are failing to show any movement. It may be that the dog has extricated
itself and headed off home. Our group is very sympathetic towards the dog and Ian tells us that we are all far too soft-hearted to work in his call centre.
I’m thinking of that cool, calm voice at the end of a phone. The reassurance of knowing that someone is there, that you are not alone. I ask the staff about the way they end their calls. “It’s what we always say, it’s what
people need to hear,” they tell me. They are so right.
In the life and death circumstances that our brave fire-fighters face so many times, it’s
the one thing the frightened people at the other end of the phone need to hear:
“We’re on our way!”