Lancashire's 999 service at breaking point

999 delay fears grow as Lancashire Police's contact centre is receiving more calls than ever.

Monday, 8th May 2017, 6:07 am
Updated Wednesday, 10th May 2017, 4:34 pm
The police contact centre

For most people they are the first point of contact with police.

On a daily basis they make crucial life and death decisions, ensuring Lancashire Police’s thinly stretched resources are in the right place at the right time.

But statistics show workers in the force’s Hutton call centre are more stretched than ever.

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Figures seen by The Post show Lancashire Police is handling thousands of extra calls each month.

During the busiest months, the number of calls tops 90,000 – and includes an average of 90 additional emergency 999 calls every single day.

That means, at times, there are delays not only answering the non-emergency 101 lines but also vital 999 calls.

Lancashire Police stresses on average emergency calls are answered in 8.2 seconds. The national benchmark is answering 90 per cent within 10 seconds.

But the growing pressures on the system are a concern for Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw.

He is worried that call handlers are not only facing higher volumes but each call is longer as staff deal with complex and sometimes unfamiliar situations.

He said: “In simple terms the force has seen a big increase in the number of calls received. It’s around 3,000 every month.

“Not only that but there is an increased complexity to the calls.

“The average now is three and a half minutes longer than it was a year ago.

“It is the time it takes to deal with that increased complexity which is a challenge.

“It’s an issue we know about, one we are taking action to address. But at times people do have to wait to have their calls answered, sometimes even 999 calls.”

Earlier this month Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor, said police were increasingly being treated as the service of first resort, questioning whether forces could continue to ‘fill the gaps’ left by other agencies.

Mr Grunshaw attributed the huge increase in calls on an increasing reliance on the police. And he believes call centre operators are dealing with a much wider range of issues.

He said: “A lot of the calls are coming from people in crisis, who have not been able to access services.

“They feel their only option is to dial 999.

“Sir Tom Windsor issued a report this month saying police were no longer the service of last resort.

“That is because of cuts right across the public sector, in adult social care, the NHS, mental health.

“We have seen a significant number of calls coming to the police in these areas and it is these calls which add to the complexity of the work.

“There are the unintended consequences of cuts to local authorities.

“Nobody shouts about it but there are services not being provided to people who are in crisis.

“They end up calling 999.

“Once somebody has called the police we have a duty of care until they can be handed over to another service provider. That can take hours in some cases.”

Lancashire Police has repeatedly said 80 per cent of its workload is non-crime related.

The issue was highlighted last year when the Police Federation posted images of multiple police cars parked outside Blackpool Victoria Hospital.

And Mr Grunshaw fears pouring resources into the call centre will only make matters worse for those on the front line.

Lancashire Police has already recruited an additional 40 call handlers.

But cash for that has come from existing budgets, leading to a warning over resources becoming increasingly thinly spread. Mr Grunshaw said: “We have 40 more call centre staff which means hopefully we can reduce delays and ensure all calls are answered within targets

“But the money for that comes from the same budget, there is no more.

“If we are answering more calls, that generates more work for officers.

“At the same time we haven’t got the resources to boost numbers there.

“It’s a Catch 22 situation where you are generating more work without any more people to do it.

“Things are reaching a critical stage.

“If you’re asking if this is sustainable, right now, I’d probably say it’s not.”

Technology introduces new ways of working

The way Lancashire Police handles calls has changed massively in the last decade.

Divisional communications rooms used to respond to calls from specific areas of the county.

But Chief Superintendent Peter Lawson insists one call centre better serves the whole county.

He said: “It gives us more flexibility.

“The modern technology we use gives us the ability to ensure we can serve the whole of the county more efficiently.

“We’re hoping to use technology more, allowing people to report crimes online, just one thing which will help lift the pressure on the contact workers.”

When to call 999

The 999 number is for emergency calls only.

Police advise it is used: when it’s an emergency, when a crime is in progress, when someone suspected of a crime is nearby, when there is danger to life or when violence is being used or threatened. If you don’t need an emergency response, then you should call 101. Typical 101 calls include when your car has been stolen, your property has been damaged or you suspect drug use or dealing in your neighbourhood.

‘Mobiles have upped pressure’

Chief Superintendent Peter Lawson is the man tasked with ensuring every 999 call is answered.

As head of HQ operations and contact management, he works to ensure Lancashire Police’s Hutton call centre is adequately manned.

But even so, the experienced officer is aware advances in technology have put increasing pressure on the service.

He said: “Part of that is down to the fact more people carry mobile phones.

“If you think 15 years ago if there was a significant incident we would receive two, three, maybe four calls.

“Now it is 20 or 30 or even up to 70.

“It puts strain on the system and as such at peak times there are delays.

“There can sometimes be a wait on 999 during times of peak demand.”

But, like Mr Grunshaw, Chief Supt Lawson is also clear the wider role police play in 2017 has made a massive difference.

He said: “Now 80 per cent of what we deal with is not directly crime related.

“There are a lot of issues related to mental health where other services are simply not available.

“In evenings, at weekends that is certainly the case.

“We are a 24/7 service and because of that we see an increase in that kind of call at those times.

“We also know our operators take more time with each call –each call is more complex.”

Despite such issues, Chief Supt Lawson is clear that Lancashire Police is doing a good job in keeping lines of communication open.

He said:“We know when the high demand times are likely to be.

“You can never account for a major incident, a serious collision, but all in all we do plan well.

“The national target is to answer 90 per cent of 999 calls within 10 seconds.

“From April last year to March this year we averaged 8.2 seconds.”

Lancashire Police recruited 37 new contact workers in January.

The force said it hopes to add again to it’s central call centre team in the summer.