Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Professor Reg Coutts has been working on developing a method for addressing the Triple Zero Dilemma. The Triple Zero dilemma is about how to best satisfy two conflicting sides of the emergency services equation; on one hand promoting a clear public message to call Triple Zero in an emergency, on the other hand warning people to only call when they have a “critical need”.

The risk is that there has developed a grey area in people’s minds and they will be reluctant to take action until a potential emergency situation fully develops reducing the chances for early intervention, and in some cases they may be prevented from making the call completely.

Professor Coutts was a member of the expert panel formed by the Federal Government in 2008 to provide advice on the National Broadband Network which led to the announced policy to invest $43 billion on the national network; he is an Emeritus Professor of telecommunications at the University of Adelaide.

In this article Professor Coutts puts forward the proposition that the Australian people have come to rely too much on the Triple Zero service and emergency services in general to the point where expectation may not be met by reality. The Triple Zero service will become even more problematic if we continue to insist that Triple Zero be the sole point of contact in a critical situation. He proposes an alternative. The ubiquitous mobile phone enables us to contact our friends and family as a first point of contact with Triple Zero being reserved for high priority situations.


There is a charming scene in the Harrison Ford movie “Witness”; a film about a detective protecting a young Amish boy who becomes the target of a ruthless killer after he witnesses a brutal murder in Philadelphia's 30th Street train station.

The scene is of the Amish boy being implored by his grandfather to ring the farm bell. The grandfather can’t speak because “the baddies” are nearby; so he is miming the bell ring action. The little boy runs off and raises the alarm.
The camera pans the surrounding fields where the Amish are at work; within minutes the whole community is running to provide help. The Amish are a fundamentalist and technology adverse group shunning electric light or telephone. The farm bell is their emergency alert system.
It’s an illustration of how people can depend on their local community.
Moving out of the village.

Moving out of the village
In modern cities an individual’s community is no longer the people living next door – our friends and family are spread far and wide. We stay in contact through modern technology; telephone systems and e-mail. These same technologies enable people to remain linked.

But who do we turn to in case of emergency? In a national survey (Australia) conducted by Red Button Technologies using health research specialists Harrison Market Research; 69% of people stated that they would ring Triple Zero to call for help in an emergency.

So rather than turn to the people who know the most about us, and presumably care the most, we turn to strangers. We’ve been educated to believe that this is the appropriate response.

The Triple Zero system has occasionally become overloaded contributing to the perception that the Triple Zero service is not adequate. As is the case for all emergency response services, there are a finite number of resources to respond to calls for emergency assistance. In extreme events, these services may become overwhelmed.

Problems were experienced during the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in February 2009 that destroyed a number of towns with 173 people perishing.
After the event, it was claimed the Triple Zero Call Service and the Emergency Service Organisations were overwhelmed due to the extreme number of calls received – calls requesting assistance and calls requesting information.
A search on Google reveals many stories about the failings of the Triple Zero service. However, the ACMA which provides an independent evaluation reports that on average the Triple Zero service answers 85% of emergency calls within 5 seconds, and 95% of calls within 10 seconds. It is a fact of life (or death) that the failings of the Triple Zero system are more readily reported than its successes.

Why Triple Zero?
The Triple Zero system was introduced to Australia in 1969 to standardise a plethora of state based emergency numbers covering separately fire, police, and ambulance. Back when telephones actually had dials and we pondered the choice of three zeros for an emergency number when zero was the longest number to “dial”.

Triple One would have dialed quicker, but the old practice of calling the operator by triple clicking the cradle would have imitated dialing triple one resulting in false calls. False calls are still a problem for the Triple Zero service. Recently, a recorded message has been added to the Triple Zero service which initially warns callers that they have “Dialed Emergency Triple Zero” seconds prior to the Triple Zero operator answering. This simple change has decreased the number of false calls.

Packer Whackers
Managing public perception is an important part of providing an effective emergency service. We expect by dialing Triple Zero emergency help should respond within minutes arriving fully equipped, fully trained, and solve the fire, medical, or police emergency situation on the spot.

In 1990, while playing polo at Warwick Farm, (outside of Sydney) Kerry Packer suffered a heart attack. Defibrillators were not common in ambulances at the time and it was by chance that the ambulance which responded was one of only two ambulances in NSW to have one fitted.

After recovering, Packer was alarmed at these slim odds and donated a large sum to equip all NSW ambulances with a portable defibrillator (now colloquially known as "Packer Whackers"). However, even today not all Ambulances in Australia are similarly equipped; it is simply too expensive.

This is the main challenge for any public service; the point where the cost of providing the service trades-off with effectiveness.

Locating mobile phones
Another growing problem is the increased usage of mobile phones. Calls to Triple Zero from mobiles have increased over the last five years from 56.9% to 62.1% of all Triple Zero calls.

Emergency service operators are not able to accurately locate distressed or injured persons calling from mobiles. Operators must ask the caller exactly where they are. The only readily and universally available means of describing locations is by referring to street names; not much use if you are in the bush, or find yourself in an unfamiliar location.

This was a contributing factor in the death of David Iredale, a high school student who died of dehydration near Katoomba in late 2006. Iredale made several calls for help to Triple Zero prior to his death. Emergency services operators were "pre-occupied" with obtaining a street address to send help to, despite the fact that Iredale repeatedly stated that he was located in bushland where he had been wandering for days.

The Triple Zero dilemma
However, what constitutes an emergency? The definition varies from person to person and situation.

Australian Governments have worked hard to promote a simple concept; when Australian people get into trouble their first action should be to call Triple Zero. This important message had been reinforced over the years with high success; with an estimated 69% of people stating that they would call Triple Zero if they were in an emergency situation.

However, at the same time the number of inappropriate calls made to Triple Zero is an ongoing problem prompting authorities to issue new messages such as “Only call 000 (TTY 106) if you are in critical need of emergency services (police, fire or ambulance)” and to implement a number of public communication campaigns designed to educate what defines a circumstance where it is appropriate to contact Triple Zero.

The ACMA reports that a significant number of calls made to emergency services do not relate to emergencies. Typically these calls result from misdials, incorrectly programmed fax machines, callers reporting matters that are not emergencies, and hoax calls. Only 44.3% of calls made to the Triple Zero service end-up being transferred to fire, police, or ambulance.

The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association has made comment on this problem…

“This is a huge issue. The industry estimates of the 12 million annual calls to Triple Zero, 55% or 6.6 million are non-genuine and this is jeopardizing the lives of Australians who need potentially life-saving emergency treatment,” said AMTA Chief Executive Officer, Chris Althaus .

In some states the problem is far worse. The Hobart Mercury reported that THREE-quarters of people using Triple Zero to call Tasmania Police are not in emergency or life-threatening situations.

Examples of non-genuine calls included an elderly man asking police to deliver a phone book to his nursing home, a woman complaining about ring-tailed possums ending up as road kill, and somebody who could not turn off their stove.

This is the Triple Zero dilemma; on one hand promoting a clear message to call Triple Zero in an emergency, on the other hand warning people to only call when they have a “critical need”. Inevitably, there will become a grey area in people’s minds and they will be reluctant to take action until the situation fully develops reducing the chances for early intervention, to the point where in some cases they may be prevented from making the call completely.

An alternative to Triple Zero
Perhaps the answer is to address the grey area between the public’s perception and emergency services definition of a critical situation with an alternative, and become less dependent on Triple Zero and emergency services in all situations.

The alternative to dialing Triple Zero is to contact friends and family. Let’s examine this proposition for a moment. Immediately the objection would be that our friends and family would not be trained or equipped to handle an emergency.

However, against this criticism is…
1. Over half of all calls to Triple Zero are not necessary.
2. If the call does require the attendance of emergency services Triple Zero can be dialed by friends or family at any time.
3. Friends or family are more likely to be able to determine the location of the caller than an emergency service operator.
4. Friends or family have more knowledge of the caller’s medical or other history.
5. Friends and family are also likely to be physically closer to the caller and able to reach them more quickly rendering first response help.
6. Despite being most of the time highly effective, there are occasions when emergency services are overwhelmed. Friends and family are better than no-one.

Lastly, friends and family are more able to communicate effectively with the caller particularly if they have impaired speech or cannot speak English.
With a growing migrant population the language issue is becoming more relevant, because even though Triple Zero services have access to interpreter services it’s not a simple process to identify the caller’s language and to quickly locate a suitable interpreter.

The global village and modern tribes
Author and futurist Seth Godden talks enthusiastically about the emergence of modern tribes forming and bonding through technology. Humans are apparently pre-wired to form tribes of about seven people; that group of friends and/or family that we are closest to and who we count as our nearest and dearest.

The ubiquitous mobile phone has become our communication device of choice and fixed line phone usage is declining. Contacting our tribe using our mobiles may be a better option in case of emergency.

The Amish might have been on to something. We can use modern technology to ring a bell of a different kind to make our tribe come running and only involve Triple Zero when we require that additional assistance.

This would have the combined benefit of reducing demand on Triple Zero, and improving the quality and effectiveness of the calls. In addition, friends and family are more likely to be brought into the situation at a much earlier stage.


Contact Profile

Red Button Technologies

Red Button Technologies Pty Ltd was formed in 2006 through a partnership between telecommunications expert Professor Reg Coutts and technology specialist marketer Justin Wearne.
Professor Coutts was a member of the expert panel formed by the Federal Government in 2008 to provide advice on the National Broadband Network which led to the announced policy to invest $43 billion on the national network; he is an Emeritus Professor of telecommunications at the University Adelaide
Red Button Technologies received an AusIndustry COMET Grant in February 2009 to develop the Connectivity Server prototype and to assist with commercialisation of the venture.
In December 2009, Red Button announced that it had received a $500k investment from Melbourne based firm Optimation Software Engineering and has entered into an agreement to develop and commercialise Red Button’s Connectivity Server platform leading to the development of their first consumer product to be hosted on the platform; Assure Connect™ currently being tested ready for launch in July 2010.
Justin Wearne
P: 08 8359 3066
M: 0414 744 481

Reg Coutts

P: 0414 477 766
M: 0414 477 766


triple zero, red button, emergency services, wearne, coutts, assure connect



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