NIAS: maintaining social distancing in the control room


Philip Mason reports on the recent expansion of Northern Ireland Ambulance Service’s control room, enabling operators to remain safe during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The most obvious of these is probably the dramatic increase in workload, specifically on the part of NHS staff who have been at the frontline of caring for those with the virus. Likewise, the police, who - with stringent lockdown restrictions in place since mid-March - have been tasked with keeping order under incredibly trying circumstances.
As well as these primarily logistical considerations however, UK emergency services have also had to deal with practical circumstances on the ground, not least the need to maintain social distancing. This, again, has proved challenging across a variety of environments, whether in relation to frontline patient care, the issuing of warnings/fines to the public and so on.
One location where social distancing has the potential to prove especially problematic is in the control room, which, by its nature tends to be filled with people all working in close proximity.

With that in mind, in this article we’re focussing on Northern Ireland Ambulance Service’s (NIAS) recent work to add an additional control room. This was created specifically to allow COVID-19 separation measures between the control room staff, to reduce overall density within the space. Technological support came from BT and solutions supplier Northgate Public Services.
The primary purpose of the project - clearly - was to make sure that those in the control room are able to remain physically safe. With that assured, it was then hoped that operatives’ mental wellbeing would be protected in the long, hard, slog through COVID-19.
Not enough room
As indicated, the Northern Ireland project was green-lit after it was decided that there was simply not enough room to properly safeguard staff at NIAS’ existing control room in South Belfast.
According to a statement released by Northgate, from a communications point of view this work entailed: “Fast-tracking the project to ensure technology was installed, tested and launched in just 13 days. [This was] an unprecedented response time for a project of this nature.”
Going into more detail about how the work got started, as well as the logistics involved, executive director of the company Ian Blackhurst said: “The first contact we had with NIAS about this was in March. They raised a call with us saying that they had a problem with staffing density at their A&E control centre in Knockbracken.
“Unlike a lot of our customers - and particularly those in the police and Fire and Rescue Service – ambulance services really do not have a lot of space to work with when it comes to their control room. So, it was imperative that we moved quickly.”
He continues: “It became apparent during our initial discussions that they had an unused building available, which at that point was being referred to as ‘site five’. They asked us to set up an additional control room there. The main control room had 23 live positions, and four training positions. We moved the latter into live, and added 16 new positions into the new control centre, making a total of 43.
“We started the process of moving positions on March 27 and the control room was fully live by April 15. In terms of the supply chain, we were able to get everything sorted within the space of less than a week. It really was quite something.”
According to Ian Blackhurst, the key requirement for NIAS from a technical point of view was the ability to replicate functionality going across the two sites. Northgate also managed the radio integration, with BT supporting the telephony requirements, thereby facilitating remote telephony. This included routing emergency lines going into the main control.
Going back to Northgate’s own technology, Blackhurst continues: “From our side, we established the maximum amount of expansion capability available, creating the majority of the configuration remotely. The final hardware installation, configuration and testing was achieved through onsite working, carried out by one of our colleagues who had been designated as a keyworker.
“NIAS is using the NPS CallTouch system, which enables radio and telephony. The staff in the control room are organised into dispatchers and call-takers, with the latter taking details of the emergency and carrying out triage.”
As indicated, the Coronavirus is currently providing any number of acute difficulties across every realm of society. One challenge that hasn’t necessarily received a great deal of attention until now however are the potential difficulties inherent in building a new emergency services control room, particularly when it comes to the aforementioned supply chain.
According to Blackhurst however, this was another area which, when the time came, went far more smoothly than anyone probably had the right to expect. This includes the availability of the technology itself, but also the attitude of third-party suppliers and their willingness not to take advantage of an urgent, life-critical situation.

“I’ve got nothing but praise for our partners who helped to complete the project so quickly. We were working with suppliers from both the UK and overseas, with some of the hardware coming from as far as Denmark. 
“It was there just when we needed it. They’d really heard and understood the mission brief and pulled out all the stops to get it to us within the timescale.”
Source of stress
As important as the technology is to a project such as the one carried out by NIAS, just as crucial is to obtain buy-in from those who will actually be using the equipment. You may have the most advanced technology in the world after all, but it will mean nothing if those on the ground don’t feel prepared - or indeed comfortable - when going about their jobs.
Mike Isherwood is the MD of control room software developer APD Communications, which is owned by Northgate Public Services. For the past three years, the company has celebrated those working in emergency services control rooms via its hugely successful annual awards ceremony (known as the APD Control Room Awards).
Discussing the current ‘human’ issues facing not just operators in Northern Ireland but all across the UK, he said: “The control room environment could easily become a breeding ground for COVID-19, simply because of the close proximity in which people find themselves. This has the potential to be massively detrimental, not only physically but also in terms of the sheer level of worry.”
He continues: “We have quite a close relationship with the control room sector as you might imagine, and what we’re finding is that people are suffering from considerable mental discomfort. It’s a stressful job at the best of times, but then to be distanced from your family and friends while also worrying about your own health has been a source of immense strain.
“At the same time, there has also been a shift in the kinds of calls which are being taken, something which, again, is down to the Coronavirus. Call centre demand hasn’t necessarily gone up as expected, but there has been an increase in domestic violence calls, social media complaints and so on. All this has changed the control room dynamic considerably, which is also a source of stress.”
NIAS’ decision to split its control room in two has obviously been prompted by concerns over the welfare of its staff. At the same time however, there would also have likely been serious issues around the continued running of the organisation itself if things had remained the way they were.
Expanding on the need to build not just safety but resilience into the control room, Isherwood says: “As debilitating as individual cases of COVID-19 can be, an outbreak would also be absolutely disastrous when it came to the overall ability to carry out the job and keep the public safe.
“From an organisational point of view that was actually the biggest concern – if one person on a shift was affected by the virus, you have to entertain the possibility that everyone in that group could also be prevented from coming to work. The point with Northern Ireland was always about splitting people who are on the same shift pattern, thereby engineering-in redundancy between the two sites.
“In terms of the room layout, not a great deal has really changed, in that the supervisor still sits at the back, with the dispatchers in the middle and the call takers at the front. The point is how effectively NIAS has been able to prepare itself at a time of extreme difficulty.” 
As the COVID-19 crisis continues, it’s clear that society is becoming increasingly dependent on innovations within two specific fields. The first of these is medicine, such as in the quest for a vaccine or specific treatments to mitigate the worst effects of the virus. The other meanwhile is technology, and its attendant ability to help us become more agile in how we deal with problems.
The work which has been recently carried out by Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and its partners is a vivid illustration of this.

This article was originally published in the July 2020 edition of the BAPCO Journal.  

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Media contact

Philip Mason
Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio
Tel: +44 (0)20 3874 9216