Testing an emergency call centre and a proactive letter

Jo Straw
Digital and innovation at British Red Cross
6 min readOct 4, 2019


We are testing how we can identify more people who are affected by emergencies and need support . You can learn more about how we identified this problem from Harry’s blog post.

Two weeks ago our team went to Kendal in Cumbria to meet five people who had been flooded during Storm Desmond in 2015, as well as two emergency responders.

In this round we tested two ideas: a proactive text which leads to a phone call with a British Red Cross call centre, and a proactive letter which is sent with people’s redirected post following an emergency.

Here’s what we learnt.

Emergency call centre

The first prototype we tested was a call centre for people who had been affected by flooding. The premise was a call centre, staffed by British Red Cross, which provided advice as well as signposting to practical and emotional support for people.

This essentially worked like the NHS 111 service, but for humanitarian emergencies. It is designed to test a route to access support for people who don’t face an immediate risk to their safety but need help to recover from an emergency — in this case, a flood.

First, people needed to find out about the call centre. We tested a higher fidelity version of the proactive text we tested in Cardiff. People were sent a text message directly to their mobile.

For the most part, this re-confirmed our hypothesis is correct that people are more likely to contact us if we make them aware of support via text.

There were some shortcomings in this approach, however. Some people told us how telecommunications were down for quite some time after the flooding, meaning it may have taken a while for them to receive the text. Other people mentioned issues with being able to charge phones in the initial aftermath of the flood.

“I wouldn’t have received it because my phone was dead”

One person felt they would have been suspicious of an unsolicited text message.

“I would like validity of who sent it”

Proactive text message being tested in Kendal, Cumbria.

We then asked people to click on the link in the text message and they were directed to a web page with a list of information about supportopen link to try the prototype yourself.

We made the web page using the GOV.UK Prototyping Kit and hosted it on cloud platform Heroku. Using these open tools allowed us to rapidly make realistic prototypes that people can try on their own mobiles.

Here we were testing the hypothesis that people don’t need to know much about support to ask for it. This was less conclusive. People liked the landing page and being able to see more about the support available quickly and privately. However, some people wanted to know more before requesting support.

Our biggest learning from Cardiff was once people are made aware support exists and have considered if they want it, they just want to speak to someone. So that became the next stage in what we prototyped and tested with people in Cumbria— a phone call.

Landing page with information about support and how to request it. Page being tested in our first interview in Cumbria (right)

We designed the whole phone call interaction. We had trained and experienced emergency responders Christina and Laura from our team taking the calls. We wrote and rehearsed a call script. We made the interface to record information during the callopen link to try the prototype yourself.

Christina taking a call from one of the interviews with someone who experienced flooding. Recording information into the call handler prototype.

Here we were testing the hypothesis that we can assess people’s needs over the phone. This hypothesis proved true. People liked the mix of requesting support but also receiving some practical advice and guidance — which our trained emergency response colleagues provided unprompted and very naturally during the call.

“The call really makes you feel calm”

“The questions really helped me to think what to do next and to prioritise”

Although the hypothesis was correct, there’s definitely some improvements which can be made to the call handler’s experience. This deserves a blog post of its own so watch this space.

Finally, we asked people to imagine they received a call from one of the organisations providing support a few days later and to talk to us about what they thought and how they felt about this. We were the hypothesis that people are ok with their information being shared with other organisations.

Overall people were fine with this on two conditions. Firstly, that they had been asked for their consent to share. Secondly, that the communication they received was relevant.

“I would not want you to pass on my information if I had not asked for it”

“I like that it says why it’s come through”

Proactive letter

The second prototype we tested was a letter that residents would receive in their redirected post. This was testing our hypothesis that people are more likely to contact us if we put letters in their redirected post. One of the first things we learnt, was that not everyone’s post does get redirected after an emergency. Some residents’ post would be posted into a sodden house, and trampled on by all people clearing the damage, assessing the damage and making repairs. By the time people got it their post was sometimes ruined.

“I did get letters from organisations like this, but it was a state. People traipsed through the house and over my letters”

For those who were collecting their post from their local Post Office or alternative location, they would see a letter with the British Red Cross logo in the window of the envelope.

Even if people did receive the letter in a suitable condition there were several barriers to it being opened. Firstly, people might not notice it. Some people remembered leaving it a long time between picking up batches of post which meant there was a lot to go through. Others thought the letter did not look urgent and therefore they might not open it. Some people felt it looked like was asking for donations, and therefore would choose to not open it.

Proactive letter being opened in testing session in Cumbria.

When opened the letter’s content was well received though. It was clearly laid out and headed straight to the point of informing residents of the different routes to support. People appreciated knowing why they received the letter, which was explained in a box at the bottom of the letter.

“It’s helpful to see why you’ve got the letter — that makes it feel more personal”

We felt overall that this would certainly work for many- those who did have their post redirected or areas where phone signal may be down but we had to be mindful that this may not reach many, or even most, of the people we want to reach. It may close the gap of those in need of support, but is that gap still too wide?

“Some people might see it and feel like a victim which, post-flooding, you don’t want to feel like that”

Refining further

We know that we have these options up our sleeves now, and with a little fine tuning to both, our experienced user feedback tells us we are on the right track. We will test more ideas in the weeks to come, being careful to test with a diverse range of people.

Fun fact: Nearly 89% of the UK population listen to the radio on a weekly basis and there are around 45 million social media users. With that in mind we are exploring how we can make people aware of support available using these channels. More to come…



Jo Straw
Digital and innovation at British Red Cross