For almost five years - through fears of Millennium bugs, international terrorism and attacks at the Athens Olympics - the Red Cross disaster call centre remained untested.
But as if to indicate the scale of the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the Wellington centre has opened for the first time to field calls from thousands of people in New Zealand with friends and family caught up in the tragedy.
Connected by a Timaru policeman, Red Cross call centre volunteer Raiha Graham tries to comfort the distraught Australian tourist on the telephone.
"She was most upset," Mrs Graham said.
"Her brother-in-law was missing, she didn't know what to do so she went to the police station.
"She was just waiting and hoping - he had not made any contact, whatsoever."
Ann, another volunteer, hangs up her phone and admits, "That was a hard one. It's the second time she's rung, she's desperate".
The woman's daughter is missing on a small island in the Indian Ocean, at the heart of Sunday's earthquake.
"I think if I was talking to them face to face, I couldn't do it," adds Ann, who asked that her surname not be used.
Volunteers are manning 14 emergency lines to help people leave as many details as they can about where those lost might be.
The volunteers, some of whom walked in off the street after watching images of the tsunami devastation on television, fill in form sheets, noting whether a loved one has been found, or is believed missing, injured or dead.
There have been positive calls. Yesterday, one "very relieved" woman rang back to say her daughter had just phoned from Phuket airport, she was okay, and about to be evacuated to Bangkok.
There's only been one angry caller so far, among more than 2000 calls volunteers have fielded by late afternoon yesterday, and that one was put down to stress.
Another volunteer has the Italian Embassy on the line, frustrated because they say they haven't been able to reach the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There are Italians missing who are New Zealand residents. Red Cross promises to pass on their message.
Other New Zealanders have phoned to offer help - including one man who offered the use of an aeroplane, and a company which said it would make a helicopter available.
Nurses, builders and a diver want to know if they can be used in stricken regions. They are thanked, and their details taken. But reconstruction and recovery is being coordinated overseas.
With the 0900 donation line overloaded, one caller among hundreds to telephone the missing persons line pledges $1000, with total donations exceeding $80,000 yesterday.
Kay Griffin has taken a break from answering telephones. Her brother and his family are holidaying in Myanmar. There's been no word of them.
She talks down her personal worry, and speaks instead of the "intense" calls she has fielded from others. From the man whose granddaughter was backpacking in Thailand, another whose friend was on a surfing holiday, and those just worried about colleagues.
"When you see it on television, it's so hard to see or believe or comprehend."
The volunteers, many of whom have no disaster experience, cannot give any answers or search information to the people who ring, that is the task of the ministry.
And there is little said about the increasing worry that three days after the tsunami struck, so many New Zealanders have not yet contacted home.
Instead, distressed callers are assured that people will be out hunting for those missing.
"It gives them that little glimmer of hope, we're reassuring them that yes, we are looking and yes, we are doing our best," Mrs Graham said.
"At least people know it's registered, and someone will be looking."