Volunteers man call centre to link lost bushfire victims

Call centre whipped up in 90 minutes for a Red Cross inundated with distraught callers

More than 200 volunteers are manning continual six-hour shifts in a Melbourne call centre to handle calls from victims of the Victorian bushfires.

The fires tore through much of the state over the last week, claiming the lives of at least 181 people. Some 22 fires are still burning across Victoria, the worst in the south east regions of the state.

A 40-seat call centre in the suburb of Richmond donated by outsourcer Stellar has connected some 4500 callers with missing family and friends, received more than 15,000 inquiries and listed 9800 registrations.

CEO John Hollingsworth said the site provides extra capacity to the existing 10-seat Red Cross State Inquiry Centres which have been inundated with calls since the bushfires began.

“The challenge for the Red Cross was the enormity of the crisis,” Hollingsworth said.

“The centre receives calls from both people displaced by the fires and concerned family and friends.

“We take it day by day; we stay open until the volume gets to a manageable level, and demand picks up every time an area is evacuated.”

Volunteers consist of Red Cross and Stellar staff and their family and friends who keep the centre running between 8AM and 10.30PM.

“We will stay open as long as necessary to help the victims of this awful tragedy,” Hollingsworth said.

Staff record caller details on hardcopy forms and a search is run on the Red Cross registries to locate family and friends. A return call is made by Red Cross staff to the centre if a match is found, from where callers are notified.

The centre was up and running within 90 minutes, Hollingsworth said, which included voice switching between the Red Cross and Stellar inquiry centres.

CIO Warwick Marx arranged for Red Cross to direct excess calls to the company's Mitel multi-media automatic call distributor located in our Box Hill centre along two separated ISDN trunks. Calls were then converted to VoIP and routed through Stellar's internal network to the volunteers manning phones.

"We had deployed into our Richmond centre specifically for this emergency. Due to the urgency involved we arranged for the call traffic to pass directly from the point at Box Hill to the call queue, bypassing the IVR system to allow caller to reach a volunteer as fast as possible," Marx said.

"We initially began scoping the solution with Red Cross at 5pm on Monday evening and had trained volunteers taking calls less than two and a half hours later at 7.30 pm Monday evening.”

The company has its head offices in Sydney and Melbourne and operates eight other call centres across Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland, with a further 10 based overseas. Stellar customers include Telstra, Simply Energy, Sony Computer Entertainment and Hutchison Telecoms.

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