Life behind the scenes at West Yorkshire’s 999 contact centre

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The open-plan office is filled with banks of computers, large screens displaying performance stats and dozens of call handlers in headsets.

It looks like any other call centre, but the people picking up the phone here are routinely dealing with potential life and death situations.

Contact centre Supervisor Vanessa Morton.

Contact centre Supervisor Vanessa Morton.

This is West Yorkshire Police’s customer contact centre where around 4,500 emergency calls, non-emergency calls and online reports are handled every day.

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Earlier this summer, the force said it was experiencing unprecedented demand, with a 15 per cent rise in 999 calls.

Tom Donohoe, who manages the centre, said: “Even though only around 20 per cent will be critical risk, they’ve got to respond to every 999 call as if it could be the most serious.”

The average 999 call waiting time when the YEP visited was just four seconds, which is even more impressive once you learn the quickest possible is three.

“Currently we’re the best performing contact centre in the country for 999 calls,” Tom said. “We haven’t abandoned a 999 call for 14 months now.”

Calls are ‘abandoned’ if they are terminated in the time between the BT operator connecting them and someone answering, a situation nobody wants to see given their often serious nature.

Ensuring there is someone ready immediately is a task for Vanessa Morton, the performance supervisor.

“My main role is just to make sure that I’ve got enough operators available to take the 999 calls,” she explained.

“You get a feel for leaving so many free for 999 but also reducing that 101 total.”

This task becomes even trickier when 999 calls spike as demonstrated on July 7 – the day England played Sweden in the World Cup – when a record 2,300 emergency calls came in.

“We still managed not to abandon one but obviously our 101 service wasn’t pretty,” Tom conceded.

That waiting time can vary significantly throughout a shift just as it did on the day we visited when the average was just under four minutes.

In the space of a single hour it dropped from 46 calls in the 101 queue with a wait time of 14 minutes and 37 seconds to only nine calls and a wait of three minutes and 42 seconds.

The force has introduced a whole series of online options as an alternative to calling 101, including an online tracker for previously reported crimes and reporting forms for offences such as anti-social behaviour and drug dealing.

Call handlers Liz Jackson and James Brownsword are manning the centre’s media desk, which means they assess what steps are needed next for each report and respond to people using the live chat facility on the force website.

As we join them, they are running half a dozen live chats ranging from an issue with a car dealer in Leeds and suspicions about sex workers using a Huddersfield hostel to a query about the authenticity of cigars bought in a supermarket and a report of threats being made to business staff by a customer.

James, who used to work as an engineer, said: “A lot of them are asking can an officer give me a ring back, or reporting lost property or neighbour disputes. People will go to their local councillors and if it’s not being dealt with there, they’ll come to us for advice. It was a big eye opener for me really, I’m surprised by the number of people having neighbour problems.”

For former IT worker Liz, the most unexpected thing has been the number of calls where mental health illness is a factor.

“I never realised how bad mental health was in the community until I came here,” she said. “We get a suicidal person pretty much every day.”

There’s a potential mental health and emotional toll for the call handlers themselves too, something which supervisors keep a keen watch over.

Liz said: “We never find out what happens after the call and it is hard. I took a missing persons report from someone’s brother. He was high risk. I couldn’t stop thinking about that for days.”

When handling the most serious calls, they will often need to stay on the line until officers reach the scene.

“You’ve got someone screaming and you have to leave a line open recording for evidence,” Liz said. “We can hear them being beaten up.”

All this could leave people wondering why anyone would want to put themselves through doing the job, but the variety of the role, serving the public and being able to help people are frequently cited.

Liz said: “People often ring up for the first time at the worst time in their lives. For you to be there and to be able to help them is nice.”

It is a similar story for George Doyle, whose family has a long history of working in the emergency services.

Despite having parents in the fire service and a sister working for the police, he was still surprised by just how many crimes and serious incidents are taking place in West Yorkshire on any given day.

“That’s been the biggest eye opener for me,” he said. “How many people are in crashes, how many people wake up and find deceased family members in the house – that’s the horrible thing about the early shift.”

He vividly remembers the first time he took a call from someone who said they had seen a gun, and during our visit one call handler is trying to calm a woman reporting men with swords outside her home.

“One of my worst ones was taking a call from a young child at three in the morning when their dad wouldn’t wake up,” George said. “You’ve got to remove yourself from that emotional side of it and think I’ve got to get the ambulance and police there. Afterwards, when the call has ended, that’s when emotions can take effect.”

He takes half a dozen 999 calls while we watch including nuisance youths in Bradford, a collision in Leeds and a teenager stepping out into traffic, all of which result in officers being dispatched as an emergency or within an hour.

There is also a ‘dropped’ call where the call is answered but nobody responds, something which has to be investigated in case it is a genuine emergency.

“Even if you accidentally ring us, the worst thing you can do is hang up,” George said. “It’s better to come on and say I rang you by accident.”

In this case, a call back to the number quickly establishes that it is children mucking about, and often it turns out to be ‘pocket dial’ or mobile phone in the washing machine.

There are also hoaxes to contend with as well as calls that should really be directed to other organisations.

Tom said: “We do find an awful lot of our calls are not our business. They’re nuisance calls, calls for social services.

“If someone gets stuck, they’re going to ring 101. We can cope with that – it’s when they ring 999 instead.”