The Ambulance Service of New South Wales (ASNSW) is renowned for having the best emergency call handling operations in Australia and is among the best in the world. In 2004, the service set out to modernise the technology supporting its operations centres, which handle emergency calls and patient transport enquiries.
The service prides itself on the high standards of clinical training, modern technology, extensive fleet and specialist skills of its operational and corporate staff.
"We wanted to review our processes and technology, in order to improve the performance of our four operations centres in vital areas such as response times, reliability and reporting capabilities," said Roger Hanssen, director information technology for the ASNSW.
"We needed to find ways to work more efficiently and plan better for future incidents while maintaining our world-class standards of patient care and reliability."
Working with technology partner Integ, the ASNSW rolled out a new technology system to its Sydney Operations Centre in November 2004. ASNSW planned to ultimately extend this system to its three remaining rural operations centres with the aim of standardising each of their systems and processes.
When a lightning strike took out communications and computer systems at the Northern Operations Centre, these plans were brought forward.
The key challenge with any system upgrade at the ASNSW is that there is no opportunity for downtime, as the operations centres transition from old to new systems.
"We provide a 24-hour service to the New South Wales public; it's simply not an option to have downtime," said Hanssen. "Even during the migration to the new technology environment, we couldn't afford even a minute of downtime - it had to happen while staff were at their desks and with no impact on operations.
"Before the migration, staff had to be trained to use the new system to make sure they would be comfortable as soon as each operations centre was switched over."
To add to the complexity, the upgrade involved a number of parties including ASNSW's own IT staff and team leaders, external engineers, project managers, trainers and consultants. Many of these parties needed to be onsite 24 hours a day at operations centres up to 400 km from Sydney. And once the deployment had started, it had to be finished within six weeks.
Building on the knowledge gained from the Sydney rollout, the ASNSW and Integ spent three months planning the implementation. This process required the input of the ASNSW IT and communications staff and local management teams from all four operations centres. The process had to be integrated with the ASNSW's risk management practices to ensure day-to-day operations were not compromised.
The new operations centre solution is designed around the Alcatel-Lucent OmniPCX Enterprise high-availability telephony and communications platform and Genesys call-routing software, which is designed to deliver each caller to the right agent with the right information first time.
The critical nature of the design has to cater to all instances of possible failure. It has to be robust not only in the technology, but in the supporting processes. The backup system uses the Alcatel-Lucent OmniTouch Call Centre where calls are automatically routed from one centre to the next in the event of a network failure.
Integ integrated the solution with a range of ASNSW support applications including the computer-aided dispatch system, the Telstra address database used in the 000 service, and the ProQA and PSiam clinical analysis tools that allow call centre operators to gauge the nature and severity of the caller's problem.
The final element of the solution is the Praetorian Voice Recorder software from Higher Ground, which meets the service's legal requirement to record all emergency calls and store them indefinitely. Integ implemented the software and a storage infrastructure solution to retain, manage and search for call recordings.
Instant benefits followed the implementation. The ASNSW found a marked improvement in call response times and staff productivity, thanks to faster and more accurate call handling.
The implementation was completed across the three remaining operations centres with no downtime or disruption to services.
"The thorough planning and well-designed training regime meant staff made the transition to the new environment seamlessly," said Hanssen.
The real-time reporting capabilities provided by the new technology environment allow call centre managers to use resources more effectively and make more informed choices when planning for the future.
"The system tells us in real time how many agents are on board, how many calls for non-emergency transport are in the queue and other vital figures that make sure we have the right resources to deliver the best possible service," said Hanssen.
"Historical reporting capabilities mean we can compare this year's figures to last year's and develop an understanding of incoming call patterns. We can use this data to improve our processes to make sure we continue to provide the best possible service."
The ASNSW's operations centres are now being used to demonstrate best practice in emergency call management to other local and international agencies.