Last week (22nd – 28th October) marked the first ever International Control Room Week celebrating the dedication of the truly remarkable people who are at the end of the emergency services phone lines.
Control rooms are at the heart of any emergency service operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. For Devon and Cornwall Police this is no different. Everyday staff in our control rooms take up to 800 emergency 999 calls and 2500 non-emergency calls via 101. That’s more than a million calls every year. It’s a busy place.
The men and women answering these calls are the first people you will speak to when you need the police. They are absolutely on the frontline of our force.
The nature of the job means that our call handlers are speaking to people who are often distressed, panicked or scared – they might feel vulnerable and don’t know who else to turn to.
Quickly ascertaining key details and information to help officers locate and deal with the situations they’re about to head into is imperative and in certain situations can be the difference between and death.
I am in no doubt that our call handlers in the control rooms in Exeter and Plymouth have saved countless lives and supported so many others through their most difficult moments.
Our call handlers are your sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers – they are ordinary people doing an extraordinary job.
Throughout the week I have been following stories on Twitter via #UnsungHeroes and #HeroesInHeadsets from call handlers, dispatch officers and members of the public. They’ve highlighted the sheer range of incidents, queries and concerns that come through to the police and other emergency services control rooms.
I was particularly touched by a story I read from an ex-police officer who “doesn’t do golf” and decided to take up a job in the control room in his retirement.
His passion for policing and helping people shone through in a series of tweets posted on the Northumbria Police Twitter account.
“A suicidal person on the line is always difficult call to take.” he writes, explaining how he had answered a call where there was a man with a knife to his throat.
“You have to strike such a balance between remaining calm and compassionate but also in control of the situation.
"You don't want to let them get off the line, you want to keep them talking so that you can get the officers there so they can handle the situation.
"It can be demanding to ask those pertinent questions when somebody is in such distress at the end of the phone but everyone does their best because you want an outcome where you can ultimately keep that person safe which is what it is all about.”
I think this story stuck with me more than some others because it highlights the skill of those working in a control room – the ability to provide support a person in distress whilst also asking some incredibly personal and difficult questions is an ability not many of us possess.
While of course this call was a genuine police matter, every day police forces across the country receive calls which the police can’t do an awful lot about. From the benign (bad parking, dog fouling and littering) to the ridiculous, Devon and Cornwall Police now have a non-emergency directory so you can find out who the most appropriate person or agency is to respond to your concern.
To highlight the issue of some ‘emergency’ calls, Devon and Cornwall police have released some extreme examples of people who didn’t think before dialling 999.
They included a Londoner in the “middle of nowhere” who wanted police to tell him where he could catch his coach to London and a man who had received the wrong pizza – double cheese instead of pepperoni.
While these may seem funny they are genuine examples of calls received into our control room. I hope next time that these people might think twice about phoning about a mixed up take-away bearing in mind it could be their friend or family who needed police help.
That being said, I don’t want to discourage readers from calling 999 in a genuine emergency – when someone is in danger, a crime is in progress or a suspect is nearby always dial 999.
For anything else please use 101. You can now email 101 via email@example.com, report crimes online and a new and improved webchat service launched last month. To find out more details please visit the Devon and Cornwall Police website www.dc.police.uk and search 101.
To finish this week I would like to say one last big thank you to our heroes in headsets – call handlers and dispatchers – who often do not receive the credit they deserve. As our wonderful Exeter Specials put it ‘guardian angels on the radios and phones’ – thank you for all that you do.