Help is at the end of a line

PUBLISHED: 12:12 26 September 2006 | UPDATED: 10:54 06 May 2010

Maria MacQuillin is the assistant manager at North Herts’ Careline organisation

Maria MacQuillin is the assistant manager at North Herts' Careline organisation

IN DEEP dark nights Maria MacQuillin still relives the worst phone call of her life. She was working at Careline, which monitors 23,000 people with alarm systems linked via telephone lines to a central system. A panic-stricken woman called to say her home

IN DEEP dark nights Maria MacQuillin still relives the worst phone call of her life.

She was working at Careline, which monitors 23,000 people with alarm systems linked via telephone lines to a central system.

A panic-stricken woman called to say her home was on fire. Maria calmed her and told her repeatedly to leave but the woman stayed where she was until it was too late, and the fire service was unable to save her.

"To this day I don't know why she didn't get out," said Maria, the assistant manager of Careline which is run by North Hertfordshire District Council.

"At the time you are focussed on taking the call and you have set procedures to follow. But certain calls will get to you."

Her 18-strong team, which includes a university student, are as varied as the clients they cater for but they have one thing in common - they are caring people with a calm, warm manner who want to make a difference.

They are also very skilled - they need to know different sets of procedures put in place by the 40 local authorities and charities which employ Careline, including North Hertfordshire Homes, the Howard Cottage Housing Association, Stevenage Borough Council and Aragon Housing Association in Mid Beds. The staff man their Hitchin base for 24 hours, all year round, with a minimum of two people on duty.

"What we look for is a caring nature," said Maria.

"They need to be able to handle more than one thing at a time. They are not frightened to take charge and they want to help people.

"They know if someone is on the floor or having a heart attack that they are the first port of call. You can be on that call for 20 or 30 minutes, a lot of that time keeping them calm or conscious. You are reassuring them that someone is coming, as well as making sure that the appropriate help is called."

Most of their clients are elderly, with two aged 106, but the service doesn't cater exclusively for them. People with epilepsy and diabetes also use the service along with some widows who feel safer with an alarm system. Careline also monitors the well being of people working alone, using mobile phones. The centre is alerted if they are gone longer than expected and can notify management or the police.

"We want people to know we are here and what we do," said Maria, who used to be a care worker - a common background for people manning the phones.

The system is so sophisticated that equipment can be added to let the centre know if dangerous situations arise such as the smoke detector going off or the floor flooding. Sometimes elderly people get confused and leave pans on the stove until they catch alight or don't turn a tap off.

The staff also have to deal with families who call in a panic.

"They have gone to visit a relative and they call to say they don't think mum is breathing. They are distraught and you have to organise a doctor or an ambulance and ask them questions like whether they can find a pulse, until the professional can take over.

"We are not medically qualified so our job is to get the help people need. A lot of our job is life experience or background learned in previous jobs, which we use to ensure we follow the correct procedures."

Maria and her team, which includes Andy Amess who fits the alarms in the North Herts area, have one vital message for residents - contact them before you think you or your family need to.

"So many people wait to have an alarm installed until they have a fall and they've been on the floor all night. They spend three weeks in hospital whereas an alarm, which allows help to be called immediately, has a hugely beneficial affect on their rate of recovery," said Maria.

If you would like to know more about Careline and live in North Herts, call 01462 454609. If you are in Stevenage or Mid Beds call the borough or district council or your housing association.

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