West Yorkshire Police is drafting in dozens of new staff to deal with an upsurge in calls to its emergency and non-emergency lines.
The force recently reported it had been receiving more than 1,000 extra 999 calls compared to the same period last year, and there are no signs of the demand falling.
Budget cuts across the public sector have forced local authorities and others to reduce services, leaving police as the first port of call more than ever.
Around one in every five calls made to the police is not a police matter, according to the head of the force’s customer contact centre.
Tom Donohoe said: “Nationally and particularly in this force, over the last three or four months we’ve seen a massive upsurge in demand.
Cutbacks to local services has meant we’re getting calls that maybe should be going to councils and social services. On Friday and Saturday nights, we get a lot of calls around mental health.
“While we’re dealing with that social services call or local council call, we’re not dealing with the call that should be for us.”
The need to be on hand to deal with the most serious calls is made clear when a major incident is unfolding. There was a huge surge in calls on the afternoon of June 16 when Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox was fatally shot and stabbed in Birstall.
Mr Donohoe said: “Usually the first couple of calls are not very specific. They say there’s something happening, there’s a lot of noise and activity, and then we start to get more detail.
“We got an additional 300 calls over a three-hour period compared to what we would normally expect to handle and that’s when my guys all move onto the 999 calls.
At points when we’re reaching peaks in volume of 999 calls, we’re moving all the handlers to that work.Tom Donohoe, head of West Yorkshire Police’s customer contact centre
“There’s a lot of advice calls – my child goes to school near there – but then there was a lady who saw everything happen from a care home.”
The sonic boom heard across Yorkshire in May prompted 700 calls, including one claiming to have seen a plane crash in Temple Newsam in Leeds.
When major incidents do arise, all details from calls are fed into a master log and a Gold Command operation room headed up by senior police staff is set up.
They are also set up ahead of major events such at Leeds West Indian Carnival, which takes place on the busy August Bank Holiday weekend.
On Bank Holiday Monday the contact centre at Wakefield Police Headquarters took 3,500 calls, with an average queue time for 999 calls at three seconds and for 101 calls at four seconds.
The centre is currently staffed to handle between 3,800 and 4,000 calls to 999 and the non-emergency 101 number.
But on Tuesday there were 4,600 calls and the total has topped 5,000 in recent times.
Mr Donohoe said: “At points when we’re reaching peaks in volume of 999 calls, we’re moving all the handlers to that work. That’s the call where someone has a knife to their throat or they’re about to throw themselves off a bridge.”
The peak time is usually between 4pm and 7pm, with any rush hour crashes pushing call levels even higher.
Incidents on the motorway regularly generate dozens of calls, such as the 40 or so received about a man walking beside the carriageway who appeared to be under the influence of drugs.
The hen party minibus crash on the M62 near Pontefract in 2013, which left one woman dead and others seriously injured, prompted in the region of 400 calls in around three hours.
“People wanted to know about family members and what was happened,” Mr Donohoe said.
For any call that needs a police response, a log is created in the system and passed on to the dispatch teams for the relevant division – Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds or Wakefield.
Officers can be en route to an ongoing incident while the call handlers continue to get information and add details.
This was the case when a call came in reporting a murder in Elland.
The handler was able to get the caller to give a description of the attacker, who was still armed and in the area; give instructions that would help to preserve evidence; and, most importantly, calm down those at the scene.
It is just one of the calls the force chose to release yesterday as it sought to improve public understanding of the kind of incidents the handlers could find themselves involved in on a daily basis.
But for every serious call, there is someone ringing to report a dead fox on a doorstep, complain about the lack of pepperoni on their pizza or to ask the police to drive them home.
Mr Donohoe said: “You could be 50 minutes on the phone with someone who’s trying to kill themselves, and the next call we take will be something ridiculous.”
The contact centre team highlight these calls via Twitter using #not999 in a bid to educate the public, and has been promoting online methods for certain types of crime online through its Click Before You Call campaign.
It is also recruiting an additional 46 staff to the contact centre between now and Christmas to help meet demand. Mr Donohoe said: “The training for the staff is intensive and very much customer focused, but our new recruits also have to have a high concentration of accuracy and computer skills.
“They have to be quick, precise and need to know what is happening and where with their aim to protect the public and ensure officers will be attending any given situation as soon as possible.
“It can be an extremely rewarding role.”