A few days back I tweeted “Does anyone honestly believe local knowledge will not be lost if you centralize police call centres ?“ which was in reference to an article I found in the Lancashire Evening Post (http://www.lep.co.uk/news/local/call-centres-to-shut-in-new-cuts-1-4852682). That article reported that yet another Police Force had taken the decision to ‘centralise’ its call handling systems, taking away local control rooms, and taking with it by default, untold amounts of local knowledge.
We must be clear here, Lancashire are by no means the first or only force to be going down this line; indeed the Chaos Constabulary did it several years ago – ask any of our officers how it’s worked for us and the answer will undoubtedly be a variation on the word ….. ‘nightmare’.
I should also be very clear this is in no way a dig at the hard-working over-stretched people working as call takers and despatchers who themselves have found their units cut back to the bone and are constantly in fear of being cut further back in light of the current and already proposed further Government spending cuts in police service funding. It seems they are being deemed as ‘back office’ staff and so ripe for the pickings – great for the balance sheet but not so if you are the 83 year old granny that’s just had some drug induced nutter kick your door in and steal your pension to buy his next fix – waiting for eternity on the phone listening to tacky on-hold music interrupted every minute by a less-than-sincere waffle from the chief constable of the moment reminding you ‘how valued your call is’ and how ‘we strive to offer the best possible service’ – well no, if you valued public service, you would make sure you had people to answer the phones in the first place !
Taking the above article as an example, Lancashire Police are downsizing from six control rooms to ONE ! This will, without argument, save a lot of money on paper – but will it save money in real terms, and much more important to us that aren’t bean counters, will it make for a better service to the public – I stand to be corrected but previous experience elsewhere in the country suggests not. Have you tried ringing your local police to report an incident recently ? i have, and I’ve got to tell you, it wasn’t a) easy, b) efficient or c) customer friendly. But we’ll come back to that in a bit, first of all, back to Lancashire.
Cue the 999 call from a mobile phone “There’s a fight outside the George on Market Street, someone’s been stabbed get an ambulance quick the guys gone to the Mill” – call cuts off.
Where is the job happening ? How many Market Street’s are there in Lancashire ?? (a lot cos I just Googled the street name whilst preparing this article)
What’s ‘The George’ ? – The George Inn, The Royal George, The Saint George, The George & Dragon, something completely different ??? (there’s a sandwich shop called ‘The Gorge’ on one of the Market Street’s ….)
Where or what is ‘The Mill’ ? a pub, a street name, a building, again something completely different ??? – we have a place known locally as ‘The Mill’ on our patch. It doesn’t appear on any maps and you wouldn’t find it on Google but its been there for a very long time. It’s now a kids play park that in the evenings gets plagued by under age drinking and dope smoking, but once upon a time there was a water mill there and despite several hundreds of years of local development, redevelopment, lots of concrete and now lots of grass, and the resultant park being named the ‘Councillor Who Never Lived Locally And Never Did Anything Useful Except Upset All The Residents But Liked The Sound Of His Own Name Recreational Ground’, everyone still calls it ‘The Mill’. I bet you have similar places in your area.
We also have complete roads that have changed their names as a result of later development but most people round here still refer to the old names. ‘London Road’ hasn’t been called that for longer than I’ve been alive but I know where it is …. or was so when we get a call there we know what we’re doing.
If you have divisional control rooms staffed by people who are experienced in dealing with incidents on their area, and, as in most cases, live or know the area they are policing pretty well, it would be a simple task to work out where this incident is taking place – if your Control Room is staffed by people 60 or 70 miles away who’ve never set foot in your town the chances are greatly increased that they simply won’t have a clue because they don’t have that local knowledge. That means a lot of extra time trying to decipher the little information we have; trying to trace via the mobile networks where the phone was or, as it normally the case in such incidents, despatching a patrol car to each and every possible location just in case ….
Hardly quick, efficient, customer friendly, money saving … or more important potentially life saving for the stab victim !!! – If however you had knowledge of a particular Lancashire town with a hotel called ‘The George’ next to a shopping centre called ‘Mill Place’ it would very probably be a different matter.
Of course, the very same bean counters who dreamt up the centralization idea in the first place are generally quick to argue ‘everyone is welcome to relocate to the new location’ which is no more than a very poor attempt at blaming the oncoming failings for their doomed from the outset project firmly back at the door of those highly experienced and ultra-helpful control room staff they so dearly wish to close the door on because those same staff won’t or more likely can’t, play their little game.
‘They’ are relying on the fact that people can’t just up-sticks and move 60 or more miles to work on a whim. If ‘they’ hadn’t noticed, people have families; families have kids that are settled in schools; they may have partners who, heaven forbid, also work in the area they currently reside – why would they want to move 60 miles away to have to commute that same distance back and forth every day to keep their job ???
Many people can’t just sell up and move – thanks to the current economic climate, none of which is the fault of the average man or woman in the street, but is majorly the err of greedy corporate institutions and poor governance, a large number of home-owning folk find themselves in negative equity so they simply cannot sell up and move on without losing even more money.
Besides that, when they say that everyone is welcome to move; that in itself denounces the major cost savings and cutbacks achieved by shutting down, in Lancashire’s case, five out of six control rooms – if your major cost, as the bosses keep pointing out to us, is people, then people will still cost you the same if they are in one place or six !!
So then …. returning to my own recent experience of reporting a live incident to my own force and the difficulties I faced ….
On the way home from a half-night shift a while back, somewhere just past 3am in the morning, I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of something yellow and moving. Actually it wasn’t a glimpse as what I could see was quite a significant amount of flames and smoke – brightly lighting up the rural night sky. Being the sort of ‘Jeez I’ve just done ten hours, I need to get home and sleeeeeep’ sort of guy I am, I promptly turned off at the next junction and worked my way round to where the fire was.
What I found was a recently set alight vehicle; a taxi-cab as it occurred, and still visible at the back were its registration number and the taxi plate with it’s badge number on. Scurrying round in my pockets for my mobile phone, which as you would expect had about 3% battery time left on it, I managed to get close enough to the burning car to establish there was no one obviously inside it and dialled 999 to call the fire service.
As you would expect, my emergency call was answered within seconds by the operator and I was connected to my local fire control room. I explained where I was, junction of Bedford Road and Meadow Lane (not the real road names for obvious reasons but having the name of a town in one is very relevant). I gave the vehicle details to the Fire Service operator as well and was advised that a Fire Engine was being sent but would take a few extra minutes as the nearest station was a ‘retained’ one not full time so the crew would need to be paged first. This whole call lasted less than two minutes.
I then asked to be transferred to the police control room to report to them as well, which the fire operator did straight away …. then the problems began.
I got put through to our recently centralised but nowhere near Bigtown, police control and call centre. My opening line was “HI, it’s PC123 Chaos, just come off duty and found a car on fire on my way home, I’ve already called fire but I need the night turn out here, looks deliberate and offenders can’t be far away. I’m at Bedford Road junction with Meadow Lane”
“Bedford” came the reply, “sorry you’ve been put through to the wrong force, I’ll have to take some details and pass them to Police Service that cover your location”.
Must admit, that threw me a bit. The lack of any sort of local knowledge quickly became apparent. “What” ?” I said (if I remember correctly, in a slightly raised voice) “Bedford Road, corner of Meadow Lane … in Littleville … definitely in the Chaos Constabulary. Can you take down the number plate of the taxi before it melts I haven’t got a pen on me”.
“I need your phone number first please” and in we launched, into what is quite clearly a pre-formed set of questions on a computer screen that nobody dare deviate from for fear of death or immediate chastisement from the recently introduced non policing background room supervisor who was probably until last month overseeing a call centre selling double glazing or copies of Encyclopaedia Britannica or such like to poor unsuspecting punters.
Anything I tried to interject with seemed to matter not until this bloomin’ questionnaire got filled in. Why did they need to know at that point what colour my skin was – It wasn’t me on fire but if it was I would have probably gone from a sun deprived milky off pink to a nice crispy charcoal grey before they did anything useful and sent a police car out to help. And getting to ‘why do you think this is happening to you’ prompted a reply of “because you’re not listening … ohh sorry the car on fire – probably because someone set fire to it !”
Now you could say that I, given my position, should have been more understanding, but believe me, it was very frustrating. All I kept thinking was ‘if this is what the public have to go through every time they ring us and then have to wait days to see a copper ‘cos we’re so short staffed, no wonder we get so much grief at every job we go to’
But, the call taker continued …. and continued …. I’m not sure how many minutes I was on the phone but I know three things:
- The low battery beep on my phone kept going
- The Fire Service Control Room had paged the retained firefighters, who at that time in the morning had most likely been in bed – they had got up, got dressed, made their way to the fire station, opened up, got kitted up, got the fire engine running, and were at the scene with me BEFORE I had got off the phone to the police control room.
- The police call taker never put the vehicle details I had passed onto the running log because they hadn’t got to that point on their questionnaire and by the time they asked me to repeat it, the back plate and taxi badge had long melted away (the nice kind firemen did however have the details on their despatch printout so gave me that !)
And to me that all tells me one thing – our system is wrong and needs to go back to how it was, not make the remaining working ones wrong as well just to save a few quid. The Bean Counters need a rapid reminder here that we are here to serve the general public and that’s the bottom line, not their spreadsheet !