Recently I was privileged to visit one of the four 112 Emergency call centres in Portugal. The one I visited was in Lisbon serving the mainland south of Santarém, Leiria and Castelo Branco included. The other three are in Porto, Madeira and the Azores.
Hopefully most of us will never encounter a situation whereby we will need the assistance of the emergency services. However, in case this becomes necessary, it is important to know how it operates and what you will be asked when making a call.
The two centres, one in Lisbon and the other in Porto, are designed to be fully independent and to ensure disruption-free operation, even if one centre experiences an overload or a failure.
Callers to 112 seek help in all types of emergency situations such as rural fires, medical or maritime distress, crime situations, and many others. Fast and efficient responses to those calls literally save lives.
The 112 call centre in Lisbon is accommodated underground and its location not advertised. I was met by Superintendent Carlos Martins, who has been commanding 112 for some 20 years, designed the Lisbon centres from 2007 to 2009 and since then has been overall in charge. Needless to say, he has considerable hands-on experience.
The centre’s layout is similar to most call centres I have seen overseas and on one occasion been responsible for. It comprises a massive screen which shows electronically useful indicators such as calls coming in; the details of which operator is dealing with each call, the number of calls over a given period; the waiting time before calls are answered; the duration of the call; and number of calls in the queue, etc.
The Public Security Police (PSP) are responsible for the operation of the call centre, but the operators are both GNR and PSP. All speaking English and some other languages. Having police answering calls, in my experience, is an advantage as most have operational front line experience in dealing with such emergencies. The centre does not deploy vehicles or response teams to emergencies, which is the role of district command/control centres. In the case of medical emergencies, these are passed to the Emergency Coordination Centres (CODU) run by INEM.
During the 45 minutes I was there, around 150 calls were received, with an answering waiting time of between three to 10 seconds. Obviously, the more calls that come in, especially during major incidents, the longer the answering time. This takes me to two very important points that Superintendent Martins made: the first is that 65% of all calls are non-emergency – this can range from lost pets, traffic conditions, the weather and so on. There are also false calls. Needless to say, this greatly impedes the effectiveness of the 112 system and means that the handling of genuine calls can be compromised.
The second point is that it is vital that callers continue to wait until the call is answered. This may take time when there are many calls – minutes rather than seconds. All incoming calls are in a queuing system, so if you terminate a call and call again a few minutes later, you will be at the back of a queue. This often happens in major incidents and, coupled with 65% of non-emergency calls, has obvious consequences.
The third point is to remain calm – speak clearly and slowly. This is easier said than done when a fire is raging towards your home! However, it is a fact that, in an emergency, people are naturally under considerable stress and when speaking in a different language to the operator’s native tongue, sometimes with strong regional accents, effective communication is more difficult.
All calls are recorded for legal reasons. The operator enters all the details obtained into the system and this record, giving location, nature of the emergency, address and phone number etc. (not the recording), is automatically passed to the appropriate district control centre where the emergency is located, e.g. CDOS (Civil Protection), GNR or PSP. It is these centres which are responsible for deploying the appropriate resources to locate the caller/victim and coordinating and monitoring the emergency response. The details are also automatically passed to the national control centres PSP, GNR or ANEPC in Lisbon. All centres have liaison personnel who can contact their respective commands to ensure coordination. Try to keep your phone line free until the emergency services reach you. The dispatcher may need to contact you for further information.
Knowing your location
The Advanced Mobile Location (AML) technology is used in Portugal. An AML-enabled smartphone recognises when an emergency call is made and, if not already activated, activates the phone’s GNSS to collect the caller’s location information. The handset then sends an automatic SMS to the emergency services with the caller’s location. The AML is dependent on several factors in the area where you are located and, therefore, the location shown may be to within a few metres, but can be several kilometres if AML is not enabled. Important for android and IOS phones, ensure in “Settings” that the “Emergency Location Service” is activated.
In giving your location you can use description, such as the road between X and Y for instance: landmarks; GPS coordinates; road numbers: milestones and Safe Residence Program house numbers. The operator may not know the exact point you are referring to, but these details are automatically passed to the district centres who have that more detailed “local” knowledge/information necessary for deployment. Remember, when giving numbers speak clearly and slowly to avoid mistakes. If you speak Portuguese, this is obviously easier.
A tip is to write this down with translation and display in a prominent place in your home.
Those with impaired hearing
Portuguese authorities have a facility which connects the caller to a sign language interpreter in the operational centre who translates the sign language into speech. This app can be downloaded from website 112.pt and from Play Store (Android) and App Store (IOS).
David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In 2011, he founded Safe Communities Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal.
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