The spread of COVID-19 has had a major impact on the Service d’Aide Médicale d’Urgence 33 (Medical Emergency Service 33, or SAMU 33, its acronym in French), which handles medical emergency calls in the Gironde department in the Southwest of France. The service increased its capacity for receiving calls with astonishing speed to deal with the current medical emergency.

A deluge of calls just after the lockdown was announced

When the pandemic started, calls to the medical emergency number about the virus were mainly requests for information about symptoms. The SAMU (Medical Emergency Service) control center is connected to the phone network through four Numéris primary access points with a capacity of 120 simultaneous calls. The system is deliberately designed with spare capacity in normal circumstances, and is usually able to respond to demand.

But the number of calls increased progressively before exploding just after the lockdown was announced on 16 March, rising from 500 to 2,000 a day. That was the tipping point for the SAMU: the rate of calls handled dropped from 98% to 65% – some calls were lost and caller waiting times started to become dangerously long. Faced with this congestion, SAMU 33 reacted swiftly to make sure the service was able to continue responding to serious emergency calls.

The partnership, developed over many years with Orange Business, made it possible for us to plan and respond effectively. Whether in everyday or exceptional circumstances, Orange Business has never left us high and dry.


François Dallay, Telecoms Manager at Bordeaux University Hospital

A lightning-fast operation to add an additional 60 incoming caller channels

In the weeks leading up to the pandemic, Bordeaux University Hospital’s IT department, which manages SAMU 33, was in permanent contact with teams at Orange Business, its partner for 13 years. Together, they made sure that the system was not only able to handle call peaks but also to receive new lines. This approach was essential to “plan for the unpredictable” and avoid a catastrophic situation where maximum capacity would be reached in the middle of an emergency.

“We wanted to react rapidly by increasing incoming call capacity. To do so, we requested two digital phone lines on top of the four we currently have,” explained François Dallay, Telecoms Manager at Bordeaux University Hospital. Following this request, which was placed late afternoon on Friday, 13 March, Orange Business, which prioritized SAMU orders, coordinated all of its teams. Volunteer technicians responsible for connecting lines worked throughout the weekend to deliver the new lines for the morning of Monday 16th. Usually, implementing this type of project can take up to several weeks.

No more lost calls and much shorter waiting times

From the afternoon of Monday 16th, the SAMU 33 service was able to manage 180 simultaneous calls on the emergency number platform. At the same time, the number of call handlers was increased threefold. An interactive voice service now re-directs COVID-19 related calls to prioritize emergency calls, no more calls are lost and caller waiting times are four times shorter. After two weeks of peak activity in April, the medical emergency number finally saw a return to normal.

simultaneous calls, up from 120 in normal circumstances

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