One of the many volunteer roles within North West Blood Bikes is that of controller. Also known as call takers, dispatchers or coordinators, the role of controller is essential for ensuring calls are answered quickly and the item is delivered efficiently to its destination. There is much more for the 46 members to do than just answering the phone. Many of our controllers don’t ride but wanted some way to help the NHS save money. Being home based, they are able to fulfil a none riding role within the charity.
Without a controller the calls from the hospitals wouldn’t be answered. Compared to November 2012, calls in 2017 have risen by over 2700%. The controllers regularly receive over 1200 requests per month. As volunteers, many of our controllers also have full time jobs, and they are the first ones on duty and the last people to sign off on their shifts.
Most of what a controller does goes unseen, to the callers and the riders the controller is often considered just a voice at the end of the phone. Although the riders and the public see the spreadsheet which contains the runs that the riders complete, they do not see much of what goes on in the background.
The role of controller can be very complex and starts days before the actual shift commences. Having 5 rider areas, the controller needs to go to each area rota and see which riders are on duty for the corresponding shift. Sometimes there is no rider on the shift and the controller may have to return to the rota over the following days to see if a rider has volunteered for the duty. From gathering this information, the controller can create a rider sheet, this is also like a duty sheet, it shows which rider is on duty in which area. From this the controller then needs to find out further information, for example is the rider blue light trained, are they on a liveried bike, is the rider doing any regular runs (collections at a pre-booked time), is the rider new and may need guidance to collection or delivery points.
In the 24 hours before the shift the controller checks all the riders telephone numbers to ensure they still have the up to date contact details. Texts are sent all the riders on duty to confirm that they are still available and to gather additional information from them, and then the controller waits for a reply. Occasionally riders need to come off shift for personal reasons and the controller then needs to find cover for the area or turns requests down. No controller likes refusing a request, but there are times that this needs to be done. So the day of the shift comes, for controllers during the week the shift starts at 6pm, so the controller finishes work, gets home and goes straight into blood bike mode. First off they need to change the online switchboard over so that all calls are diverted to their phone. The switchboard also opens at 6pm and calls start coming through straight away. 12 months ago the switchboard was open 24 hours and the controllers were receiving calls while at work, and even worse in the early hours of the morning, even though their shift finished at 2am. At weekends, there is controller on duty from 6pm on Friday night until 2am on Monday morning (Tuesday morning if Bank Holiday weekend). The weekend shifts are split into more manageable 6 hour shifts, previously it was 12 hours but as controllers can’t go out while they are on shifts, they were losing a full day of their weekends. This is something else they need to add into their preparations, there is no popping out to the shop for a pint of milk if they are running low. The Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday shifts begin at 7am, so no lie in for the controller as they need to change the switchboard over so that they can receive the calls and the nightshift controller can go to bed.
So the controllers have diverted calls to their phone and they are ready to go, well almost. They make themselves aware of any motorways closures that may affect the runs and also any adverse weather that may be expected, not only where they live but in all the areas that the charity covers. While it can be sunny in Preston, it can be snowing in Kendal and windy in Blackpool. The region has so many micro-climates due to the geography of the land.
And so the shift actually begins. The controllers can receive requests from over 30 locations in the 5 NHS Trusts. “It’s the hospital” is sometimes what is heard when the phone is answered. It has come quite normal for 15 requests to be received before 8pm. For each request, the controller has to dispatch a rider, sometimes even prioritising runs so that they can be done quickly and efficiently. With only 1 maybe 2 riders available per area, this can sometimes prove to a very hectic start to a shift. As with all the emergency services, we can’t tell when calls will be coming in, although history can show us the busier times of day for calls. The controllers need to be aware of how long each rider spends on the road and to ensure their safety allow time for adequate breaks. Sometimes the riders want to carry on riding but for duty of care and o ensure the safety of the riders, sometimes they need to enforce the break by not accepting any calls for the rider.
When the call comes in the controllers spring into action. The decide whether the request can be completed given the knowledge that they have from what else is going on at the time. Although people may be looking at the spreadsheet and thinking that something is possible, the duty controller may have other information that is not visible to others. While taking the call, the details are recorded and the rider is rung to dispatch them, giving them as many details as possible. Collection and delivery points, what is being carried, the urgency. There may be times that the rider cannot use the bike for instance if the item is too big to carry or in the case of whole blood the temperature is below 3 degrees Celsius (now you see the importance of checking weather reports before shift). Once the rider is dispatched, the details are transferred to the electronic sheet that is automatically backed up to The Cloud. The controllers normally have 2 different phones available to them and it is quite common for the second phone to ring while already on a call which can at times mean a bit of call juggling. Once the rider is on the road the controller are waiting for the texts that the collection and delivery has been made and then when they arrive home or at a safe place. The rider safety is paramount and when riders are beyond their expected arrival time the controllers can start to worry if the rider is OK.
The longer runs take a bit more organising and to help maintain the service to all our hospitals the controllers set up relays that involve more than one rider so that a single rider isn’t out of their area for longer than is necessary. These runs can involve 3 or 4 riders and take longer to set up than a direct run between hospitals. As well as dispatching the rider and recording all the information, the controller is always available to the riders if they have any queries. This might be problems gaining access to a location, reports of events the riders have come across while on the road, in fact it could be almost anything which means the controllers need to have information to hand, which with having the internet at their disposal make things easier, but nothing can compete with personal knowledge and common sense.
When the phones stop that doesn’t mean it’s the end for controllers. The controllers are available until the last rider is home safely. If a rider goes on a run at 01:59am then this could be 3 or 4am. Some controllers may need to be up for work at 6am so may opt for a cut off time to accept the last call. The controller also double checks all their entries are complete and then they can switch the computer off. There are times when after a shift the adrenaline can still be pumping and controllers have said that they can be led awake 2 or 3 hours after finishing as their body and brain relaxes.
So as you can see, a controller is much more than just a call taker. Before they even answer their first call they undergo a 4 hour training session. This is then followed up with shadowing a few shifts before taking control of their first shift. We have recently introduced a system where controllers can just control Regular Runs, rather than being thrown straight into taking 25 calls plus in a night, and all the controllers, no matter how much experience they have know that help is only a phone call away. It’s not all bad though. You can still have fun. In summer you can be sat outside with a glass of wine waiting for the phone to ring, in winter you’re in a nice warm house. Our controllers also do unusual things while on duty, mow the garden, wash the car and even ice Christmas cakes. Something that a controller does do is carry a phone and notepad with them everywhere they go while on duty, and we mean everywhere. You can guarantee that if you go to the toilet the phone will ring, so our male controllers adapt so they always have their hands free. We also have other triggers that make the phone ring, the switch on the kettle seems to work every time, as soon as you put any kind of food in your mouth has a similar affect
AS we begin our 105 hour weekend, we will get to speak to many of our callers over the holiday period and we would like to wish them and all their colleagues in the hospitals a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. 2017 has been our busiest year to date and hopefully we can continue to offer the same professional service to you all in 2018.
We would also like to say Merry Christmas to all our riders, fundraisers and backroom staff. Without you all we wouldn’t be able to take the calls from the hospitals. Thank you for everything you do, much of which goes on unseen
Your controllers are: Amanda, Andy, Brenda, Duncan (Manager), Edgar, Fiona, Fred, Helen, Jake, Jane, Janice, Jay, Jen, Jodie, John A, John F, Joseph, Josie, Julie G, Julie M (Assistant Manager), Lee, Lisa, Marie, Mark, Matt, Melissa, Mike, Neil (Committee Representative), Paul, Russell, Rob O-G, Rob C, Roger, Sandie, Sharon D, Sharon J, Sharon J, Shirley, Steve B, Steve P, Sue L, Sue W, Tony B-R, Wayne J-R, Yvonne.
For more information about joining North West Blood Bikes as a controller, visit https://nwbb-lancs.org/volunteer-roles.php or email Duncan firstname.lastname@example.org