Tactical Talk: Emergency Medical Dispatcher ‘Nee Naw’

Suzi Brent a.k.a. Nee Naw

When compared to the U.S., there are some major contrasts with emergency medicine in the United Kingdom. There’s the service funding, the public heath care and even the number you call. (Note: Dial “999” for help—not “911.”)

Despite the differences, people are generally the same. Everywhere.

It was those very people who drove London native Suzi Brent to the blogosphere in 2005. Not everyone irked her—just those who rang “999” as if it were a personal butler service. Working as an emergency medical dispatcher, Brent typed out her adventures in the busy London call center a few times a month at Nee Naw, her blog inspired by Tom Reynolds’ Random Acts of Reality.

Now the blog has been turned into a book.

Published by Penguin Books, Nee Naw: Real Life Dispatches from Ambulance Control is a 320-page, behind-the-scenes narrative that covers three years of Brent’s life. We caught up with the author via e-mail and discovered that U.K. emergency medical dispatchers do indeed wear tactical pants, though they call them combat trousers. Oh, and they’re green!

What was your inspiration for writing the book?

I started writing the blog because when I was taking “999” calls it struck me how little people knew about the emergency ambulance service and the “right” way to make a “999” call. Of course, it’s not appropriate to start lecturing people about how the system works when they’re in the midst of an emergency, so I hoped that if I wrote about my experiences, people would see it and be better prepared when the time came to call us.

What do you hope people learn from reading your book and blog? If you don’t mind us asking, how much of it is exaggeration versus the truth?

There were two main things I hoped people would learn: That they should only call for an ambulance when they really need one, and how to be a good caller and help us to help them.

All of the stories in the book are true. While I’ve changed some details to protect confidentiality and for the sake of confidentiality used a little poetic license, I wouldn’t say any of them are exaggerated. There are so many weird, shocking and horrific calls to deal with that I don’t need to exaggerate!

When you decided to become a medical dispatcher, did you ever imagine writing a book about it? Have you always been a writer?

I’ve always written as a hobby—at school I constantly carted a diary around with me detailing the minutiae of my existence. I guess the blog was really just a continuation of this. I never expected it to get the amount of attention it did or that it would become a book. Because I know how much competition there is in the world of publishing, I was amazed and delighted when Penguin told me they were interested.

We’re sure you get this all the time, but tell us about the strangest call you’ve ever received.

Just one? It probably has to be the lady who had a chili pepper inside a very delicate orifice, and rang us for advice for what she should do. Well, taking it out would be a good start…

You haven’t posted to your blog since the end of 2009. Will you start posting again regularly? Did you take a hiatus because of the book?

I was promoted last year, which means I don’t take “999” calls any more—I’m now the person who makes decisions about which ambulance goes where and suchlike—and felt my stories were becoming less personal. The publication of the book seemed like a natural end to the blog, but I haven’t given up writing. Nee Naw may return one day, especially if my career takes a different turn at some point in the future.

Do medical dispatchers wear tactical pants? What is your uniform like?

Yes, we do wear tactical pants, although we call them combat trousers! In fact we wear exactly the same uniform as paramedics (green trousers, green shirt and fleece, steel toe-capped boots), which I find a bit odd as our working conditions couldn’t be more different and most of the time the people we speak to wouldn’t know if we were sitting answering the phone wearing our pajamas and sporting large pink Mohawks!

What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming an emergency medical dispatcher?

See a psychiatrist! No, seriously—I’d tell them that it is one of the most rewarding jobs you can do, that you can go home feeling like you really achieved something and that you have the ability to change people’s lives forever despite only having a few minutes’ contact where they never see your face or learn your name.

It’s not an easy job but if you can cope with the long hours, the verbal abuse, the frustration of dealing with time-wasters and the horror of dealing with some unimaginable tragedies, the day you deliver your first baby or assist in your first successful resus will stay with you and change your life forever. It really is an amazing job.

Now that you’ve heard from Brent about her experiences as an EMD, share yours. Tell us about the most rewarding and/or challenging part about your job.

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