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Bonkers Blog June 2013

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26 June (Part 3) - Falling off the log

Bexley’s BELL alarm system was supplied by a company called Tunstall, who appear to be the leading purveyor of such gear. Most if not all of it is supplied on lease. Some of it has a limited life, neck pendants with batteries for example. Five years and you throw it away and lease or buy another one.

The software that runs the system is sophisticated and highly configurable if you know what you are doing. In the client’s home you have a responder to listen out for pendant button presses and it calls the Civic Centre over a phone line. The responder has a sensitive two way voice mode too enabling it to be used just like a phone. A care home might include several such systems all connected to a dedicated phone line. Mrs. Baker’s care home was on 020 8302 7162.

In the Civic Centre the controlling server was set to assume ‘No answer’ if the operator failed to pick up a call within 180 seconds, the system’s default time. This was not long enough for a lone operator to visit the toilet and John (the whistleblower) says that Bexley’s answer was to set the delay to 30 minutes but that he successfully resisted their proposal. He also says that Bexley council didn’t always withdraw alarm pendants that reached their ‘sell by date’ so as to avoid the need to lease more. This practice he says was the norm when he first worked for Bexley but improved over the years.

He claims that when elderly clients died he retrieved their pendants and tested them to see if the batteries had gone flat due to them being in use beyond the manufacturer’s safe date. If they did not work, and some didn’t, it was possible that the alarm had been pressed in vain and was a contributory factor to a death. John says he was told in no uncertain terms not to continue doing testing pendants and threatened with disciplinary measures if he persisted. We only have his word for it.

The system was able to report more than a simple button press, if there was a power cut for example. All such events bore a numerical code which would appear on the operator’s screen. John says that the system was perfectly capable of translating the codes into meaningful English but Bexley had decided not to use the facility. I shall have to go back to John to find out exactly why - he is not on email so communications between us are slow.

The simplified explanation of what happened when Mrs. Baker’s call came in at five past one in the morning is that it was not answered for reasons unknown. The most obvious reason is that the operator fell asleep but as he was sacked immediately and disappeared from the scene his colleagues had no opportunity to question him.

After 90 seconds of No Reply the system correctly logged off the operator’s console as being not in use. It then called its reserve number but Bexley in an act of sheer stupidity had programmed that in as the same as the primary number - which was logged off.

The system signalled that the operator should log on but he was either not there, asleep, or as a trainee, didn’t recognise the screen display. The prolonged lack of response caused the server to send repeat calls at 75 second intervals throughout the night. Several other emergency calls came through only to suffer the same fate. Fortunately none proved fatal.

‘Andy’ did not twig what was going on until two minutes to six. At eight o’clock the warden at Mrs. Baker’s home called to give the dreadful news.

Had Bexley’s server been programmed more intelligently it would have called Tunstall’s 24 hour control centre but it did not. One must assume it was not intelligently programmed or maybe Bexley council was too mean to subscribe to Tunstall’s service.

Either way a lady died, ‘Andy’ disappeared, presumably a nervous wreck, the man who warned of the impending disaster was sacked, and not a single Bexley council officer had a word said against him - I mean her. Sounds like they would all be assured of good jobs in the NHS.


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