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Keep calm and carry on – despite the hoaxers

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 08, 2012

  • Call handlers are the public's first point of contact with police in many emergencies

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There is a quiet buzz in the emergency call centre at Devon and Cornwall Police headquarters.

But one look at the 999 call log will tell you that staff at Middlemoor in Exeter are anything but quiet.

The list contains live emergencies including a rape allegation and a "man hitting woman". There are hundreds more similar incidents – all requiring immediate and urgent attention.

And that's not to speak of the less serious incidents that, on this particular morning, included flooding to property and minor road collisions following heavy rain.

Although hugely rewarding, the job of a call handler is incredibly demanding.

And their work is made no easier by the endless nuisance or "inappropriate" calls – which have recently seen a worrying spike in numbers.

Contact centre manager Juliette Pryce said: "You have to be a cool-headed person and very resilient. The job can be traumatic for the call handlers – we have had people phone 999 and take their own life while on the phone.

"It can be extremely difficult. You may get someone calling because their child has disclosed they are being abused or someone will phone in to report a dead body.

"It is different every day – you never know what is going to be on the other end of the phone.

"Some people can be very traumatised and you have got to be able to calm them down.

"That can be very difficult if someone is screaming down the phone."

Successful applicants undergo a stringent recruitment process before completing eight weeks' training and six months' mentoring.

Juliette said: "There is a huge sense of achievement in what we do. We are here to help people and our main priority is to save lives."

The misuse of the 999 emergency number is not a new issue but it is something which the call centre is keen to highlight.

These calls can be anything from people ringing up for someone to talk to, to a woman complaining of a split nail or a drunk man saying he has lost the TV remote.

Juliette said: "It can be between 20 and 30 per cent of the calls we get each day.

"And some of these people phone us persistently – they can call up to 50 or 60 times a day."

The emergency call handlers also have to deal with abusive callers. Contact centre supervisor Richard Weaver was a call handler at Middlemoor for two years before being recently promoted to supervisor. He was previously a police officer.

"You have to remain really professional," he said.

"With some calls that is hard to do – some people can be very abusive. Some callers will be vile to staff and that is disgraceful. It's about learning not to take it personally."

Part of Richard's job involves scanning through hundreds of incidents to ensure they are being dealt with correctly.

"We are taking calls about anything – from people phoning up about Facebook to serious sexual assaults.

"Everything is risk- assessed when you take the call. Obviously you have got things like injury road traffic accidents which require an immediate response but we would also have a primary response for dwelling house burglaries."

Call handlers work by the mantra that they are there to protect life and property.

"If there is an immediate threat we will be there straight away," said Richard. "Generally we aim to get to an emergency within 10 minutes."

A serious road accident will prompt a flurry of calls to the emergency 999 centre, with call handlers taking up to 30 or 40 calls within a few minutes.

Juliette said: "If there is something major going on, we will pull almost everybody off everything else to deal with the calls. Even when it's fully staffed in here and every position is filled, the noise level goes up but it stays calm."

Richard added: "Some people can be very panicked on the phone – they want to know that the person they're speaking to is going to sort out their problem."

Police advise people to ring the following numbers for any inquiries or non-emergencies:

101 to report a crime or for information and advice.

Textphone 18001 101 for the deaf, hard of hearing or speech-impaired.

See www.askthe.police.uk for general police inquiries.

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