William McAuliffe (right) with Lael Lenehan and Gavin Van Der Linde at the Emergency Call Answering Service in Johnstown, Navan.
In a building in a quiet corner of Navan, a man wearing a headset earpiece and microphone is sitting at a desk in front of a computer monitor.
A telephone number comes up on the screen and he answers immediately: "Emergency, which service?"
The person ringing in has dialled 999 or 112, putting them in contact with a sophisticated emergency call answering service. The man wearing the headpiece - in this case, Martin - needs to find out which service the caller needs - garda, fire, coastguard or ambulance.
He will already have had the benefit of caller line identification, a system which gives the location of the caller from both fixed and mobile phones. This is used to automatically determine the emergency service control centre to which the call should be forwarded.
The new Emergency Call Answering Service (ECAS) service was launched last year and aims to improve speed and accuracy and calls are now being answered within 0.5 seconds. When then Communications Minister Eamon Ryan opened the service, he said our emergency call answering service "is the most critical telephone service in the State". And much of it takes place in Navan.
The emergency call centre based at Johnstown and is one of three centres in the country (the others are at Dublin and Ballyshannon) and, between them, they handle between three to four million emergency calls in the Republic each year. Each centre is a replica of the other and they all have the same number of staff, 25. T
he manager of the centre at the IDA Business Park in Johnstown, William McAuliffe (who is assisted by Lael Lenehan and Gavin Van Der Linde), said: "We are a high-level, 24/7 service. We have four to eight people on duty at any one time and they all live within a reasonably close area because they can be called in at any time when assistance is needed," he says.
In 2009, BT Ireland and Conduit secured a five-year contract worth up to €55 million to provide Ireland's 999/112 emergency call-answering service.
It took over from the previous emergency call operator, Eircom. The customer service element of the contract is handled by Conduit, the company that operates the 11850 directory enquiries service and up to 100 new jobs were to have been provided between the three centres.
Based on an average of five million emergency calls per year, the service is expected to generate revenues of over €11 million a year for BT Ireland and Conduit.
Conduit sources recruits as operators and they go through a three-week training process. As Mr McAuliffe put it: "They come in all shapes and sizes. They're younger and older, graduate and non-graduate, men and women. And we have some Irish speakers, too."
Some psychological profiling and aptitude testing of recruits is performed and there are face-to-face interviews. It's a fact of life that the vast majority of genuine callers to the service will not be as calm as the operators. Very often, they will have found themselves in life-threatening or distressful situations, may be panicked or confused. In all cases, it is imperative that the operator is unflappable and remains calm.
One thing you will never hear from the operator is "Look, will you tell me where you are and what you need?". He or she will already know the location of the caller by the telephone number coming up on the computer screen.
Mr McAuliffe said that a strict set of procedures is followed by each operator. "We need someone who will follow procedures, that is very strict. That is the only way we can provide a level of consistency. We need 100 per cent compliance," he adds.
The operators work eight-hour day shifts and 10-hour night shifts and might take an average of 290 calls from anywhere in the country during that time.
It's an unfortunate aspect of modern society that this service which, after all, can involve life-or-death situations, is plagued by hoax calls. Only one-third of all calls are genuine and are put through to the appropriate service. During the time the Meath Chronicle visited the ECAS centre, a young caller rang up, demanded a pizza, swore and then rang off.
Operators are trained to listen out for 'silent callers' - somebody dials 999 but then doesn't speak to the operator. A strict procedure is followed in which the operator speaks three times to the caller, asking them to say which service they require.
Operators recall a situation in England in which a woman had been abducted, was able to dial 999, but was unable to speak. Gardai are informed about silent calls and persistent hoaxers.
By the very nature of the service, some of the calls received by operators can be distressing. They have what's called a 'quiet room' at the centre where they can go to recover.
Of course, centres like these replicate what goes on outside in the real world and, therefore, the level of calls increases at night, on bank holidays, New Year's Eve, and during school holidays.
But is is noticeable that the number of emergency calls coming into the Navan centre has decreased because of the recession. This is because there are less people on the roads so there are fewer accidents, and fewer people are out socialising so there is less disorderly behaviour or other incidents.