The Thinning Blue Line

As we all know these are tough times for policing with numbers being cut left, right and centre (even though the government refuse to believe that) and with certain crimes being on the up. With the governments review of police conditions the next few years are certainly going to define the police for the 21st century.

There are many changes happening within the service, some, I believe so that a senior officer can gain the evidence they need for a promotion and then 5 years later another officer comes along in need of evidence and changes it back to how it was in the first place! This reinventing the wheel is something that constantly happens and leaves us lower ranking officers confused about why it changed in the first place!

With officer numbers being spread very thin on the ground the deployment of those officers is a crucial element to ensure they are not ‘tucked up’ dealing with an unnecessary job and not able to respond to emergency calls. In this blog I want to focus on ‘MetCall’ (Also known as Central Communication Command), which is our communications centre facilitating calls from the public and the dispatching of officers to these calls.

When a member of the public phones 999 (or the new non-emergency 101), the call is answered by the operators at MetCall in what they call ‘First Contact’. They take the information from the caller and place it onto the CAD system. CAD is basically a log, so each incident has it’s own individual CAD number. This is then passed though the system to a dispatcher. Each borough in London has its own ‘pod’, or small area of desks where the dispatchers work. A couple of operators who see the incoming cads, perform intelligence checks and then dispatch units as necessary. The operator in First Contact grades the call depending on how they judge it, this can be based on threat to life, danger to a person or property and so on. The three main types of gradings are: an ‘i’ call (immediate) means we have twelve minutes to arrive at the scene, an ‘s’ grade (standard) means we have one hour and an ‘e’ grade gives us up to 24 hours. I have no problem with these response times, even though I question some of the things that seem to be graded as ‘i’ nowadays, what I’m trying to talk about here is two things, having civilians with no police knowledge has an effect on our availability and secondly how a target driven culture is having consequences for officers on the streets and causing unnecessary delays.

I think I should start by saying that I’ve never worked at MetCall, but I know people who have/do, so things I’ll be talking about are from experiences I’ve had at the other end of the radio or from colleagues who have told me what it’s like.

First I’ll talk a little about targets and how I’m told that the operators in First Contact have strict times in which they have to answer the call, ask the information, hang up and then move on to the next call. This stance of quantity over quality is quite obvious for us on the streets because the quality of information coming through to us on the CAD’s is usually terrible. I would estimate that in over 50% of calls we attend we have to ask the dispatcher to phone the informant back to glean some more information. I don’t know the exact times they have to deal with that initial call, but surely it would be better to spend an extra 30 seconds on the phone in the first place asking a few extra questions, rather than having to get a dispatcher, when it’s really busy to spend 2 or 3 minutes having to call the informant back. This also causes an inconvenience for that member of the public who called us in the first place!

I think another reason why we don’t always get the right information is because some of the operators don’t think like police officers, so some of the questions that I might ask to gauge whether a call needed police to respond isn’t being asked by some. On the back of that, I’m not sure if operators get given any legal training, but recently I received a CAD which was tagged as ‘Burglary’, I read the first two lines which said someone has climbed onto a garden gate and onto the roof to try and steal some lead but didn’t get away with any. This is clearly not a burglary, but an attempted theft. It doesn’t matter to me because I still turn up and report it in the same way, but I am worried about the statistics. I would imagine a senior officer at MetCall must looked at how many calls are tagged burglary, robbery, etc… so this is giving a false picture of what we are actually attending. Although it is important to note that official statistics for offences come from the crime reporting system, not CAD, so when we say crime is rising, it truly is rising not that CADs are being counted when they shouldn’t be.

I know that people want to see more police officers on the streets, but by having police officers (or employing retired officers to come back as staff) at MetCall would directly lead to more availability of the limited resources that we have on the streets. I’ll give you an example, one of the lads on my team was forced to go to MetCall for a short while, and he was pulled in to the supervisor’s office because his call handling time was too high. What they didn’t take in to account was the fact that by him spending a few more minutes on the phone was stopping many CAD’s having to go through to a dispatcher because he was dealing with the issue over the phone. This prevents a unit having to attend which takes valuable resources away from more important calls.

This sort of takes me on to my second point, I get the impression now that many operators seem to think that just because someone has phoned the police that it then warrants a unit to attend. This is not the case, many of the calls we are being asked to attend do not warrant a police response at all. One recent call I can think of is when a woman phone police because she was walking her dog down the road, and another dog barked at her dog which meant that her dog got scared. I kid you not this actually happened, and we had to drive to the other side of the borough to talk to her. As far as I’m concerned there is no way a police unit needs to be attending that. This tied us up for about 40 minutes by the time we had to drive there and deal with it. It would have made much more sense for her to be given words of advice over the phone. This goes on all the time, and the amount of time wasted by police officers having to attend needless calls must be huge.

The point I’m trying to get across is that by having police officers answer the 999 calls we can be sure that the police are only going to be attending the calls that need a police response and all the other stuff is weeded out at the source. I know that in the current climate we don’t have an abundant of officers to do this, but then again do we? If you added up all the injured officers and those on light duties is there a reason that during their recoup period where they have to stay inside they couldn’t be doing this? I don’t know if this would work in reality, but worth looking in to!

Something else that changed at MetCall a while back, was dispatchers moving around to different pods. It used to be that each operator would work with the same team, on the same shifts on the same borough. This was good because they started to learn the borough and get local knowledge, they would on occasions come out with team in the back of cars to experience it, and the officers built up a good rapport and working relationship with the operators. This really helped everyone working together and gave everyone a sense of team work, now however, it’s all changed. Operators could be moved to any pod meaning they could be working on a different borough. When they arrive at work they are told which borough they re going to be dispatching for so they then have no local knowledge and do not know the officers. I know I’m probably not seeing the wider picture, and that it was probably implemented to give greater resilience or something, but from my point of view working at the other end of the radio it’s made our lives much harder!

It might just be that more training has to be given to civilians rather than getting officers to staff it up, possibly part of the training could be to send them out for a couple of shifts in the back of a response car so they can see first hand how they do with a call has knock on effects further down the line. I know that throughout this blog I’ve repeatedly said about having police officers answer calls is the answer, but on reflection, I don’t think it is, I know there are some great operators up there, you recognise some voices and know it’s going to be an easier shift and I know that these operators would be a lot better than some police officers I know so I don’t think that police officers are the be-all and end-all to every part of the job, but having that extra knowledge and insight may help the inefficiency that we have. I also know that there are already some police officers that work there, so it might be that often when I blame the call time or non-police staff, it’s actually a police officer who’s taken the call anyway! I think the main thing we need to do is get rid of the call time targets, this would then free up the staff to get more information and give a more personal service to the callers, which is victim focused….which coincidently is one of the Met’s priorities at the minute!

I worked in a call centre for quite a few years and I know that I would hate to have to work there, it’s not why I joined the job, I think this would actually be an opinion shared by many police officers.

I really hope that this blog doesn’t offend any ‘civvies’ working in the comms rooms. This is not an attack on you guys, but the procedures and policies that are in place. I’m sure some of you guys find it just as frustrating as we do, but if I have inadvertently slagged you off, when it’s not your fault but you’re following some ridiculous SOP, please tell me. I’ve just tried to explain it from how some officers see it on the other end of the radio.


8 responses

  1. interesting blog. as a civvie, whose called the police, I’ve noticed differences in the way my calls are taken, and it can sometimes feel like the call handler wants to just get the info I want to give, rather than ask the additional questions they would have previously, I guess this is the result of the targets.
    in my last post we moved away from having inqualified staff taking referrals (child &family social services) because social workers asked more pertinent and relevant questions and dealt with things there and then, rather than us needing to ring someone back. this cut down on the to’ing and fro’ing, and comes down to experience.

  2. What you allude to is so commonly reported/blogged about by both serving and retired police officers that it must be true. I believe that it harps back to the basis that police are no longer trusted by government and have to justify their every move by filling out endless forms over and over again. I am also aware that some people who are now being allowed to join the police are really not suitable and are below what was the expected standard in the past. if that is accepted then the “Civvies” are also likely not to be up to standard. Your piont about Mabagers coming in and reinventing the whell is I’m afraid also common across industry. I have been both a police officer and a Director level mabager in industry so I sympathise with you and your colleauges. Best of luck to you all.

  3. Bad systems, not bad people. Look up John Season of vanguard consulting and get his regular newsletter. You’ll know you’re not alone unfortunately. Your assessment is spot on.

  4. Christopher David Servante | Reply

    I thought i would just add a little bit here hope you dont mind .. BUT the operators round here regularly leave me asking that question ? Why are they doing the job ? I come form a little place called Sompting yet when I ring the police I get told thatI am in Worthing or Shoreham to the point one very nice controller rang me back to tell me the police car was at a park in Worthing and could find no problem …Even though a police car was at the correct park in sompting dealing with that current problem ! Is this a failure of the people on the end of the phone to really know what they are doing ? were 2 cars despatched to different places ? or was it a system glitch ? As i said at the beginning this was not a one off , the very idea of ringing the police and the person on the end of the phone NOT knowing where you are talking about does not help with faith in the force ! It was worse once in Grimsby trying to ring the fire brigade the lady who answered said whe was in YORK so had no idea where the fire was and I was only visiting grimsby so I couldnt really help with directions ! There is a point here ( the same with any thing really ) first impressions last and if the call centre is not doing the job right then how can the rest of the industry ( or force) get it right !

  5. Yet again very true, some really good dispatchers an great folks BUT when civil service were on strike last police officers staffed the phones for my force an there was a noted decrease in mundane none police jobs we went too/didn’t need to go too. I’ve given it a go an wouldn’t want to do it all the time but maybe having a bobby nearby would help staff make better decisions maybe. I know our control room do have police Sgts as supervisors an also civvies as supervisors but I don’t know what the long term solution would be.

  6. As on of those civies I can honestly say that against all instructions I’m given by management if it isn’t a police call a officer won’t be sent and if Im taking a call depending on what it is a cad log will not usually raised this has come from 10 years of doing the job, just the same as having a new student officer on the other end of the radio thinking they know it all trust me it goes both ways. Senior management and complete wooly thinking is the problem we are being pushed in to being a social services / crisis team / hug a hoody organisation that the main roll of preventing and detecting crime is getting pushed farther down the agenda I’m afraid now you response bobby really needs about 6 different hats before they start their shift. Oh and it’s just got worse in our force with a new wonderful call grading system where nearly everything is an I.

  7. TOC Operator | Reply

    I have been a Metcall first contact operator(non emergency call). I felt that most of the first contact call handlers who sat opposite were excellent at their roles. Ones who were very good tended to be ex-Police or civvies who really had a passion for the cause and their important role. They were exceptions, there always are.

    However, I hated being monitorred like lab rats. Call times, breaks, reasons why you had a break, length of time between ending a call and making yourself available, were all recorded and scrutinised and that was how you got feedback. I know this is important for classifying figures like the original blog says but there has to be a point when they don’t pull you up because you are averaging 30 seconds over your morning toilet break.

    Some of my colleagues (on first contact) who had been there for (up to) 10 years were rude to the public and put them through to any old number. That is what shocked me the most. I felt some of my co-workers had just lost interest and seemed to treat it like a call centre job. I began my 3 month contract enthusiastic, and even when I got men masturbating down the phone I was professional, that’s how an officer would be respond I thought. Having said that I couldn’t wait to leave it as there are only so many crosswords and Wikipedia searching one can do before becoming bored.

    Calling 101 could be the first impression a member of the public gets when calling the police so it needs to be positive. I don’t know the answer for more motivation but maybe management should stop the incessant analysis of seconds which could help to decrease the ‘big brother’ feeling and hopefully improve the mood of workers.

  8. My short response to the above is “come and work a shift at MetCall and see if your view changes”

    My longer response is more detailed and boring, apologies for that but facts and reality are often a lot less interesting than speculation.

    “I would estimate that in over 50% of calls we attend we have to ask the dispatcher to phone the informant back to glean some more information”

    I would estimate that this is wildly inaccurate. I read this blog post a couple of days ago and I did a quick sample of some of the busier CAD queues. I checked around 50 I and S graded calls and only one of them had a callback for more info – in this example the despatcher was able to get more inormation and add it to the CAD.

    I think it’s important for you to understand that when someone initially speaks to you they are at their most panicked, their most upset, and their most incoherent. Available details may be quite limited. Ten minutes later when someone else calls them back they may well have calmed down, and the incident they thought was the most important thing ever is actually not, and they are able to soberly answer some questions.

    This is the reason why a later callback can often obtain info that the original operator could not. Your response to this might be to say “well the first call taker should wait for them to calm down and then get that info” – this has no guarantee of success, takes a long time, and also ignores the fact that when someone has called the police they often don’t want to be on the phone long at all, because they want to act in regard to the situation, get away from the situation, or have as little involvement as possible. You cannot force someone to stay on the phone to you. These are some of the many reasons why you get CADs with fewer details than you would like. It is almost never a fault with the operator.

    This is not to say we don’t have inexperienced operators who can make mistakes, just as the majority of officers on the streets are probationers, the majority of call takers are in their first or second year of service. This is unavoidable. Metcall has a high staff turnover rate because it’s a horrible, difficult job and after a days work there you can look forward to being slagged off by your colleagues on the street.

    “It might just be that more training has to be given to civilians rather than getting officers to staff it up, possibly part of the training could be to send them out for a couple of shifts in the back of a response car so they can see first hand how they do with a call has knock on effects further down the line”

    This is a good idea and we all ask for it to happen and it doesn’t because we can’t justify the staff shortages. I’ve actually had the pleasure of going out in a response vehicle on borough and playing about with the MDT, and I do agree it was hugely useful. I would also, however, say that the reciprocal is vital. You are frustrated with how Metcall works, come and do it for yourself, see how hard it is to get details from someone screaming at you in Bengali from inside a nightclub. Officers on the street could glean from this that sometimes you can’t get the information you want, which would free up needless radio chatter asking for stuff you’re not going to get, and probably spare you some spleen-venting time that is better spent on the Winsor report.

    As to your solution of putting police officers in the role. Some of your points have merit but I think you have a rose-tinted view of what police officers in Metcall are like. This is from your colleagues coming back and reporting their heroics to you. Your friend who got called in to the supervisor’s office for taking too long may have been resolving something like a civil dispute with a breach of the peace over the phone. If so, well done. But was that all of his calls? I doubt it. There are not hard time targets for calls but getting a call finished with accurate information, quickly, is the right way to do it. The reason for this is that there are constantly 999 calls coming in and if your mate has done one beautiful call in the time it’s taken me to do 10 good ones then he’s not really helping. Some of the police officers we have are fantastic, because they’ve been at Metcall long enough to understand how it works. However they are no better than civilian operators with the same length of service. Retired police officers are good for knowledge but their IT skills are often awful. If you can only type 5 words a minute it doesn’t matter how knowledgeable you are, vital information will not get passed quick enough.

    Finally, the part we don’t like to talk about: money. Civilians operators cost substantially less than police officers. This is how it should be, police officers are trained to deal with a massive range of issues and civilian operators focus on one. However that means it would cost a great deal more to staff MetCall than it currently does, and these extra costs can only ultimately mean fewer officers on the street. Metcall is a very good example of using civilian staff in a role previously done by police officers. It has its failings and downsides, and I could speak about those for weeks, but I’d be doing it from a position of experience.

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