SCMP Friday, June 16, 2000


A matter of seconds

Chan Woon-cheung died of a heart attack, according to his daughter, because the ambulance was an hour late coming to his rescue, even though she and her mother had called 999 four times.

In turn, the ambulancemen blamed the call centre for giving them a wrong address that sent them on a fruitless and time-wasting hunt for the patient.

This is not the first time that the emergency services have fallen short of expectations, and unfortunately it will not be the last. In 1997, a man drowned while trying to rescue a boy who had fallen into rough seas at Stanley during a typhoon. His wife called 999, but the operator put the phone down because the line was garbled. The phone's electronic components were subsequently found to contain a bug.

In the Pat Sin Leng hillfire in 1996, five people died and six were injured. The casualty toll would have been lower had ambulancemen been equipped with radios or mobile phones allowing them to call for extra help when they learned of the scale of the disaster after reaching the scene.

Indeed, a garbled phone line, an accent indecipherable to the operator or an honest mistake of rejecting a genuine call for assistance as a hoax call could all delay the sounding of an alarm bell, possibly with fatal consequences.

The authorities will investigate why ambulancemen failed to meet their performance pledge of coming to Chan's assistance within 12 minutes. The findings should be made public and any recommendations for improvement adopted. Any measures to speed ambulancemen's response time and reduce the chances for mistakes would be a blessing to their clients.

In the business of saving lives, split seconds count.