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Meet the Welsh Ambulance Service ‘unsung heroes’

THE Welsh Ambulance Service is shining a light on its ‘unsung heroes’ for International Control Room Week.

The week-long event recognises control room colleagues around the globe who work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to keep communities safe and protected.

Almost 700 colleagues from a 3,200-strong workforce hold a spectrum of roles in the Trust’s five Clinical Contact Centres across Wales.

In 2019-20, they answered more than half a million 999 calls and 724,000 non-urgent calls via the 111 and NHS Direct Wales service, while co-ordinating 670,000 non-emergency patient journeys.

Clinical advice over the telephone to less ill patients also prevented the dispatch of more than 40,000 ambulances.

Chief Executive Jason Killens said: “When people think about the ambulance service, it’s often those who work on the frontline who get the recognition.

“What they might not appreciate is that we’ve got a huge team of unsung heroes behind the scenes, working just as hard to triage those calls and co-ordinate our response.

“The nature of this work is challenging and rewarding in equal measure, and we’d like to extend a huge thanks to our control room colleagues for their hard work and commitment.”

Becca, Catherine and Gareth Sutton are a brother and sister call handling trio in Llanfairfechan.

Becca, of Deiniolen, an English Literature and Creative Writing graduate, was first to join having been inspired by partner Sion, who was also recruited as a 999 call handler.

Becca, 26, said: “Sion’s since joined the Urgent Care Service, but I still love the work and no two days are the same.

“It’s a little strange working with your siblings, especially when we’re all on shift at the same time – there’s always lots of mickey-taking.”

Catherine, 32, of Bangor, said: “I managed a coffee shop before I joined the service, which was very stressful and my work-life balance was pretty much non-existent.

“I remember asking Becca if there were any jobs in the ambulance service, and by pure chance, there were, so I applied.

“I love working with my brother and sister.”

Gareth, 33, joined in March after a decade in the construction industry, which meant a daily commute from Anglesey into Cheshire, Merseyside and beyond.

“I enjoyed my job but the travelling does start to wear you down,” he said.

“Now I’ve joined the ambulance service, I’ve got a newfound respect for Becca and Catherine and what they do.

“I’m the oldest sibling, so usually it’s me looking out for my little sisters, but now I’m looking up to them for guidance.

“It’s a unique job and I’m really enjoying it so far.”

Kerry Burrows is a duty control manager in Cwmbran, having joined the patient transport service in 1983, where she met now husband Paul.

On falling pregnant, Kerry moved from the road and into control, where she would remain permanently and serve in a number of roles including call handler, dispatcher, allocator and support manager.

She said: “Back then when you had a 999 call, you’d write the name and address on a paper form and say you’d get there as soon as possible.

“Things have changed so much since then, and technology means we can now triage these calls according to their priority to make sure we reach the sickest patients first, as well as give clinical advice over the phone until the ambulance arrives.

“My daughter Danielle has followed in her mum and dad’s footsteps, and is now a call taker supervisor.

“It’s such a cliché but we’re one big family in the control room.”

Gemma Dickin is a controller/planner for the Non-Emergency Patient Transport Service in Llangunnor, whose role it is to co-ordinate people’s journeys to routine hospital appointments.

The Technical Theatre graduate was working on a cruise ship until the Covid-19 pandemic meant her long-held ambition to join the ambulance service became a reality.

“I was literally at Heathrow Airport waiting to board my flight for my next cruise ship gig when the whole thing was called off because of coronavirus,” said Gemma, 28, of Pembrokeshire.

“Like a lot of people in the arts, I had to find other work. I’d always been interested in a career in the ambulance service, so when I saw this job come up, I went for it.

“Covid-19 changed a lot of plans but for me, it’s been a catalyst to securing a job in the service, so it’s the silver lining.

“I’m only six weeks into the role but I’m enjoying it and I’m excited to see where it takes me.”

Dawn Jones is a senior clinician on the clinical support desk, a facility run by paramedics, GPs and nurses who provide telephone advice to callers in the minutes before an ambulance arrives, as well as signpost callers to more appropriate services.

She is both a registered nurse and a paramedic, having left her coronary care nurse role in 2000 to join the ambulance service as an emergency medical technician.

Dawn later qualified as a Paramedic and went on to complete a BSc in Pre-Hospital Care, and has since embarked on a Master’s degree in Advanced Practice at Swansea University.

“What I love about my role is the diversity of it,” said the mum-of-two, based in Llangunnor.

“It’s both a clinical role but I also look at how we can optimise resources and improve patient flow.

“Being both a paramedic and a nurse means I can bring two skillsets together to provide the best experience for the patient, but also my staff who are a mix of both paramedics and nurses themselves.”

Meanwhile, in Swansea, Dave Elford is a call handler co-ordinator for 111, having joined the service in 2007 from a HSBC call centre.

The dad-of-two, 47, said: “I’m responsible not only for managing a team of 15 call handlers, but for the smooth running of a shift, supporting staff and managing the call flow coming into the service.

“I’ve seen many changes over the years, but the rollout of 111 and the pandemic has meant that we’ve never been busier.

“The sheer demand does bring with it some challenges, but at least people are making sensible decisions by calling 111, rather than 999.

“It’s satisfying to know you’re playing a part to help manage that demand.”

International Control Room Week is organised by APD Communications, the suppliers of life-saving software to emergency services across the UK and internationally.

For every mention of #UnsungHeroes on social media during 19-25 October, APD Communications will donate £1 to the Mind charity.

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