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Ambulance call operators are skilled workers, but we're being paid on the cheap

David Guest
Published date
David, an ambulance call operator, explains how the government's public sector pay restriction is affecting emergency services

As a call operator in the North East Ambulance Service, I take up to 50 calls from members of the public in every shift. Usually, they want to know if they have a serious condition and I’m their first port of call.

Although call operators aren’t as visible as doctors or paramedics, I enjoy being part of a professional and caring service. We act as a gatekeeper for doctors, saving unnecessary appointments and ruling out ambulance teams where they’re not needed.

My colleagues and I bear a lot of responsibility. If we get a diagnosis wrong, it’s a serious issue. That’s why we’re trained to be instantly professional and completely focused on the calls we take.

Unfortunately, our pay doesn’t reflect the level of skill and professionalism we bring to the job. We’re effectively being paid on the cheap. I work part-time and I earn 9p more an hour than a cleaner at the local Aldi. I don’t get paid for lunch breaks either.

Money is a struggle at home. We prioritise things for the children and are helped out by other people, including my parents. Without them, we couldn’t afford to run a car and I wouldn’t be able to get to work for shifts.

The way things are, we have no chance of saving or putting money towards a house. We manage to keep the show on the road and just hope nothing breaks down.

For seven years, the government has been holding down the pay of public sector workers. If staff continue to be underpaid, we’re definitely going to face recruitment and retention problems.

Already, I can see that morale is low. We have a 10% absence rate across the service, which is much higher than average, and people are getting worn down by understaffed shifts.

But service cuts affect us in other ways too. The government needs to recognise that the shortage of GPs and paramedics is an urgent issue. Out of hours, callers can only be sent to healthcare centres where a GP is available. Having to hunt around for doctors slows down our response.

There’s an obvious case for increasing public sector investment, including into the emergency call service. When we’re able to do our job well, it saves money later on.

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