WAKERELL-CRUZ: I worked at a call centre where I had to listen to people die
In September 2016, I moved from my hometown of Windsor all the way up north to Montreal. I had a bit of trouble finding a job for those first few months, as my French was extremely limited at the time.
I had a bit of savings that I was able to live on. Around $4000, but that wasn’t going to last too long . I got lucky and found a place to live that was basically just a futon in a large closet for $200 a month, so rent was pretty cheap. The main expense of mine at the time was the ridiculous amount of beer I was drinking.
I lived right in the heart of downtown Montreal, at 19 years old, and had $4000 dollars. I had no job, I didn’t know anyone in the city, and was afraid for my life. So I essentially drank away all of my savings.
Between what little money I could acquire from playing music on the streets, and the money in my savings account, I was able to survive until about January. Then I realized I had no money, and really needed to get a job.
Call centers. I hate them. But I had some experience working in them already, so I was ready to rumble and get going. I hit up Indeed and applied to every English-only call centre position that I could find. That’s when I stumbled across this job.
We’ve all seen those Life Alert commercials. The “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” slogan has basically become a meme. The company was one of Life Alert’s main competitor.
From what I could tell, it seemed like they were really trying to get into the home health department, as they were coming out with pill dispensers and other types of old-age home type gadgets.
I got selected for an interview and got told the rundown of the job. I was going to work nights, Monday through Friday, 10:30 p.m.- 7 a.m.
The job? Responding to emergency alarms. Subscribers of Lifeline were all older folks who wanted the ability to live on their own while still giving some peace of mind to their loved ones. The subscribers are to wear an alarm button at all times around their neck.
The button can detect falls, in which case it will automatically call Lifeline. It was my job to speak to the fallen subscriber over an intercom and ask them if they needed help. The button can also, obviously, just be pushed.
This is where things get a bit sketchy, though. Because I was working nights 10 pm-7:30 am, most of the signals that I received were false alarms. More often than not, someone had just rolled over on their button in their sleep.
So here’s the full protocol in the most frequently encountered scenario
- You have received an alarm from John Doe at 3 a.m.
- Over an intercom system, I say out loud 3 times “Hello Mr. Doe, this is Roberto, do you need help?”
- If after they don’t respond to my request for help three times, I hang up the intercom and call their home phone number.
- If at this point the subscriber does not answer their home phone, it’s time to call their listed emergency numbers, which usually consisted of their sons and daughters, neighbours, or close friends.
- The subscriber is allowed to list up to three different emergency contacts, with each of them able to list three phone numbers to contact them.
- In the order that the subscriber has presented, it’s my job to call these people and see if they’re able to leave their home and go check on their potentially endangered loved one, who at this time could just be on the ground and potentially in a life-threatening situation
- If they so choose, they can also give me the greenlight to call the local emergency respondents. Whether that be the police, fire department or EMS usually varies from county to county.
This can be a long, nightmarish situation.
A much more frightening situation that happens maybe twice in a work week is when someone actually passes away. The button can be used for a variety of emergencies, including burglaries, assaults, family matters, and health reasons.
It’s an incredibly sad reality that every once in a while, you will be sitting at your desk in the middle of the night, receive an alarm, and are greeted by yelling, groaning, or even desperate cries for help.
These situations can really shake someone up to their core, as they did to me and many of my co-workers. Domestic incidents in particular are the most disturbing to listen into, as they tend to be incredibly personal and horribly sad to sit in on.
The reason I actually had the idea to write this article was because it had occurred to me recently that during my time at this job, my voice was probably the last that at least 15 people have heard. Over a telecom as they waited for a service that was calling around to their loved ones before being able to call the EMS help that they needed.
It didn’t matter if I had a hunch, or if the equipment sounded faulty, the protocol was the protocol and it was set in stone. It’s unfortunate and it’s no ones fault, but it’s still tremendously sad.
The worst part of it though? This is just a part of the job. I was getting paid $14 an hour to slave away at night and listen to people die. It consumed my whole life, and in situations where I did hear someone pass away, I was expected to continue on in my work.
I could take a few minutes of break time, maybe play a game at the company pool table quickly and then get back to work, but it felt generally frowned upon.
The company itself portrays their services in a much different light. In commercials by similar companies, the person who answers the phone to respond to emergencies will always be wearing a white lab coat and be seated at a computer, usually with some fancy looking graphs and information displayed on the screen.
The commercials will never say that these people are doctors, but they do give off the impression that they have at least some medical training, and isn’t just some 19 year old kid working on 6 hours of sleep because he couldn’t find a job closer to him in the city.
Luckily for me, I quit in October of 2017. I’ve worked in a variety of call centres. Everything from AT&T and Rogers, to surveys, to listening to people die. The real takeaway here is that, if you’re on the phone with a company, they’re just a corporate slave making minimum wage. Be nice to them.
Their managers though? You can be as rude as you’d like to them. Go wild. They get a couple bucks more an hour.