One woman called because her tight shoes gave her a blister while shopping, another for a canker sore. People phone to ask the time and pharmacy hours, and some just like to make prank calls to the central 166 ambulance service in Athens.
As it scrambles to respond to real emergencies, the 166 hotline also has to screen thousands of calls on a daily basis from citizens who are obviously ignorant of its real role. Oddly, the majority of these calls come from Piraeus. To make things worse, every call has to be logged manually.
The EKAV ambulance service operations center receives some 5,000 calls a day and only one in five is actually a request for an ambulance.
“The situation is exhausting the operator. It’s torture. People even call to ask what time it is,” says the director of EKAV’s operations center, Haris Stefanopoulos. “If every citizen were to understand that they need to call a different number to find out what pharmacies are on emergency duty, they would be doing us and themselves a great favor. A telephone center works a lot better when the staff is not overstretched.”
The 166 hotline also receives more than its fair share of harassment calls. “They hang up if a man answers, but if it’s a woman they will make lewd comments,” says Stefanopoulos. EKAV just recently started registering complaints with the prosecutor’s service over callers who harassed responders.
Paramedics also have a huge stock of stories about people who have called requesting an ambulance over ridiculous complaints or non-emergencies, like the woman who called from central Ermou Street because she got a blister while shopping or another who claimed to be unable to speak because of a canker sore – which, however, did not prevent her from complaining to her husband at a hundred words a minute. In another notable instance, paramedics were called out to pick up a stroke case, only to discover that the patient merely had a fever. The excuse given when they arrived was that the man had in fact had a stroke, four years earlier.
Meanwhile, in contrast to countries like Germany, the UK and the US, where there are strict protocols regarding the operations of the ambulance service, Greece’s EKAV is not covered legally if it refuses to respond to a call.
According to the supervisor of EKAV’s emergency response department, Sofia Mavrikaki, the service has 60-65 ambulances and six motorcycles ready to respond to emergencies during the morning and afternoon shifts. Of the 1,000 calls it gets every day, only 500 to 600 will actually be responded to as the rest are canceled by the callers themselves.
At the operations center, there are eight to 10 paramedics working the phones and six on two-way radios to expedite calls. For the time being, the system works manually, resulting in a lot of wasted time and effort. However, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation recently announced a generous donation to EKAV, giving it 143 new ambulances and a complete digital overhaul of the Attica hotline call center, which will include an electronic system for managing calls and a telematic system for monitoring the whereabouts of the ambulances.
Stefanopoulos explains how the center works today: The operators need to fill in an index card by hand for every call they receive, get up from their desks, hand the card to the radio operator, who will reach out to the ambulances and then return to their desks. This is a process that takes an average of two minutes for each call.
EKAV president Constantinos Karakatsianopoulos adds: “During the night shift, each operator will get an average of 48 calls, which need to be recorded on 48 index cards. He or she will get up 48 times to give the card to the radio operator. Given that this takes two minutes on average, we are talking about 96 minutes that have been wasted.”
The center also employs three people on every shift to log the information on the index cards into EKAV’s computer database – that is three people who could be more meaningfully employed elsewhere.