The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has revealed some of the more bizarre requests for help received recently by staff at its 24-hour emergency call centre at Holytown in North Lanarkshire.
The centre, which usually deals with floods, waste dumping, pollution and a host of other serious problems, occasionally has to cope with calls from people anxious about less earth-shattering matters. Staff have learnt to “expect the unexpected,” Sepa says.
Amongst the 73,000 phone calls the centre has taken in the last year, some have left trained operators bewildered. One worried caller asked if Sepa inspectors could come to his house to check for “airborne hazards” from a fridge, because everything inside had turned black while it had been switched off for three months.
A mother rang the emergency number, frantic because her bathwater had turned a lurid shade of green. It turned out that the woman’s teenage daughter had spiked a shampoo bottle with hair dye.
An elderly gentleman called up asking how he could safely dispose of an old pair of false teeth. A singing group asked if their annual party would have any environmental health implications, while one woman reported slugs in her kitchen.
“My strangest call was from a guy asking if he could burn his house down,” Sepa quoted one member of staff saying. “It turned out he needed to have it demolished as he was building a new house on the spot and thought that burning it down would be cheaper than having it knocked down. I told him to speak to the fire service.”
One concerned citizen complained that there was a smell “like diesel fumes” coming from a petrol station. A caller from a small, unnamed island in North Ayrshire reported that the release valve for the island’s reservoir had been opened and the person who had opened it had left, forgetting to leave the key to allow it to be shut again.
Many of the calls to the emergency centre are at night. Sepa says these have included “complaints about the noise of amorous seagulls at Leith docks, hair in a kebab, a lice-infested sofa, dripping showers, burst pipes, gurgling central heating boilers and unsolicited calls from mobile phones within people’s pockets or handbags.”
Sepa stresses that, whatever the subject of the call, it aims to respond with a “high level of sensitivity, tact and diplomacy.” Says a spokeswoman: “We strive to ensure that the calls received, no matter how bizarre or unrelated to our role, are handled in a professional and courteous manner to ensure that our customers receive the best possible support or referrals.”
The call centre, staffed through every night, covers calls made to Sepa’s pollution hotline, its floodline, its ‘dump dumpers’ number for reporting illegal waste disposal and for other customer inquiries. The numbers are listed on Sepa’s website.
Karen-Anne Nicol, who manages the emergency call centre for Sepa, points out that pollution doesn’t keep normal working hours. “The environment doesn’t operate on a nine-to-five, Monday to Friday basis,” she says.
“The Sepa contact centre is in a prime position to take enquiries from people at any time of the day or night. We often get calls from concerned members of the public who have noticed something when out walking their dogs in the evening, and having a 24-hour pollution hotline service that they can call means we can be aware of pollution incidents as they are happening.”