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'90% of emergency calls not urgent'

Operators stage industrial action over pay and the growing number of trivial calls to medical emergency line 15

EMERGENCY operators have held a nationwide protest over pay, conditions and what they claim is a growing number of trivial phone calls to emergency number 15.

About 2,000 call-handlers are employed by the Samu to give emergency assistance over the phone and dispatch ambulances to people in need, spread across 91 call centres in France.

Unions say the number of calls has exploded in recent years - up 400% in the Côtes-d'Armor in six years, for example - because the service is being abused.

Samu spokesman Patrice Beauvilain told Libération: "Only 10% of calls are emergencies and only 1% are people in absolutely urgent distress."

Trivial calls include people reporting minor abdominal pains and digestive problems - and callers who do not want to have to wait a couple of days to get an appointment with their GP.

Raphaël Thimon, who has answered emergency calls in the Paris suburb of Bobigny in Seine-Saint-Denis for 10 years, said: "When the phone rang, we used to jump to it because it was bound to be serious. These days people call us for anything and everything."

The CGT union organised a nationwide day of action earlier this week, and many local call centres - which are based in major hospitals - are continuing with their protests that have been running since December 29. The movement has not had any effect on patients because staff have agreed to continue answering calls.

The call-handlers are considered "category C" medical admin workers - the lowest of three pay levels, taking home about €1,200 a month according to La République.

They have been fighting for years to be reclassified as "category B" - a monthly pay rise of up to €150 - because of the importance of their job and the stress that comes with it.

CFDT union rep Christophe Dela told La République du Centre: "Our profession requires a lot of skills, precise medical knowledge and a perfect understanding of the geography of the department."

One doctor in the Loiret added: "Their work is very hard and very poorly paid. They're on the front line for 12 hours a day. It's a bit like working in air traffic control, except you don't get a break every couple of hours."

Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot has pledged to re-evaluate Samu workers' pay and status, but according to unions this has been delayed until at least 2011.

Another problem encountered by the call-handlers is linked to the growing use of telephone services over the internet, which come with 09 numbers.

Old geographical phone numbers - starting in 01, 02, 03, 04 or 05 - automatically forward calls to the local department's Samu, who can get an instant fix on the patient's location.

Marc Colombani, who handles hundreds of calls each day at the Samu call centre in Toulon, told Var Matin: "Getting an exact address is absolutely essential to guide the emergency crews to the scene. It's often the most complicated part because the caller is often in a state of shock."


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