Police move to cut “wacky” 999 calls as the force struggles to cope with real emergencies

Wacky: Police are planning action to dissuade callers from ringing 999 with inappropriate queries
Wacky: Police are planning action to dissuade callers from ringing 999 with inappropriate queries

Police are planning a publicity campaign to try to cut numbers of inappropriate calls to its 999 and 101 telephone services because of the scale of “frankly wacky” inquiries which are clogging up the system and slowing response times to genuine emergencies.

Chief Constable Stephen Watson has revealed one recent 999 caller wanted to speak to police to report “the discovery of an unusual slug in her garden”, while calls from people reporting incidents such as take-away meal deliveries not arriving are also commonplace.

The content of some calls has been so bizarre, there is an assumption they are urban legends which have not actually occurred, he said.

“Some of these stories are so frankly wacky people think they are somehow apocryphal,” he said.

“Someone dialled 999 to report the discovery of an unusual slug in her garden.

“This is not an argument to say all our calls are of that character.

“What we are pointing to is that there is clutterance in the system that doesn’t help. If we can take that out we have a better chance of dealing with the core,” he said.

The force is now devising a communications policy to try to highlight to the public that they need to use the telephone system appropriately to ensure it is available for those who need help with genuine emergencies.

A new computerised call handling system is being installed at the force’s Atlas Court communications centre, but has been delayed due to technical problems.

However, with the force now taking an average of more than 1,300 101 calls and dealing with 660 people on the 999 system every day, it would ultimately need more staff to dealing with a continued rise in demand, which would mean diverting police resources from elsewhere.

One complication for the force is dealing with the overlap of issues which people assume are policing concern when they might be better dealt with by other authorities, such as littering and fly tipping.

“One person’s littering is another person’s anti-social behaviour, we understand that,” he said.

“We get a lot of calls about graffiti, litter and fly tipping. All these are core local authority responsibilities and about which we have limited responsibility.

“We want to say to people, if there is an issue, don’t hang on 101 for 20 minutes to be disappointed. This (an alternative authority) is your point of contact and this is where it will be addressed,” he told a meeting of Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billing's public accountability board.

It is hoped in future that some pressure will be taken off the central call centre for actual police incidents, by encouraging direct contact between residents and the recently introduced neighbourhood teams which now serve all the county’s communities.

The police policy is to prioritise 999 calls over those making non-urgent enquiries and that has meant the force has been able to maintain a quick response to those calls in the face of rising demand.

“When we say we wish to prioritise triple nines, we have had a nine per cent increase in the last performance period,” said Mr Watson.

“We have maintained our performance on triple nines and that comes at the expense of 101. We have done that successfully and we have worked hard.”

The new call handling system is called Smart Contact and should have been introduced earlier this year, alongside a new internal communications system which is already functioning.

Current equipment is outdated and the objective of the two new systems is that they will allow call handlers to deal with callers more quickly and effectively, either through internal police action or by ‘signposting’ those wanting help with non-police matters to other authorities.

Police are providing regular updates to the commissioner's PAB, which meets to hold police to account for their performance, until the new call handling system is in place.