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.