Last year, West Midlands Police answered almost two million calls for help from members of the public – that’s more than 5,000 every day.
The force’s Contact Centre staff cover the emergency 999 and non-urgent 101 numbers and are the first port of call for people seeking police support.
No two days – no two calls, even – are the same.
It could be recording the first critical moments of what evolves into a major crime investigation, comforting a caller in distress… or politely reminding someone that 999 should not be used to report an injured pigeon!
The force has around 200 call handlers but is looking to bolster the team, and improve its service to the public, by taking on 50 new recruits in the coming months.
Katie Hudson is an experienced call handler and Contact Centre trainer…
OK Katie… in at the deep end. There has been some criticism at the length of time it’s taking the force to answer calls, especially 101. What’s being done about it?
We recognise some people have been kept waiting too long when trying to reach us on 101. Our aim – in line with national police guidelines – is to answer 90 per cent of all non-emergency calls within 30 seconds and at the moment we’re falling short.
That’s why we’re running an extensive recruitment drive to boost our call handling capacity; we’ve already taken on several new recruits this year and hope to have tens more trained up and ready to hit the ground running soon.
We’re accepting applications now and we’d love to hear from people who are passionate about helping the public. They can make a big difference to people’s lives.
Is it because you’re seeing an increased number of calls from the public?
That’s one of the reasons. Around 64,000 more 101 calls and 45,000 more emergency calls were made to West Midlands Police in 2016 compared to the previous year.
In 2016 we answered 1.3 million 101 calls and 632,000 999 calls… so we’re talking about a large call volume.
101 is still a relatively new way of contacting your local police force – it was introduced in late 2013 – and it’s good that the majority of people are now aware of it.
However, there is a tendency for people to use 101 simply as a directory service – and many of the questions our handlers are asked could be answered by the caller themselves with just a simple internet search.
101 is for non-emergency police calls. For example, if anyone has suspicions that a person, a house, or vehicle is linked to criminality; if their car has been damaged or broken into overnight; or to raise concerns about anti-social behaviour. Things the police need to be aware of but don’t require an immediate ‘blue light’ response.
What makes a good police call handler?
The skills we’re looking for are patience, calmness under pressure, understanding and compassion. But at times you need to be assertive, especially with people who are clearly abusing the 101 or 999 system.
Our recent new recruits include ex-teachers, a pilot, people with retail and customer service backgrounds, graduates, plus former police officers. There’s a real mix.
I joined two years ago from the care industry. I worked in hospitals and care homes but decided it wasn’t for me.
What was the attraction of working in a police contact centre?
I still wanted to work in an area where I could help the public.
Most people call the police when they are in need and sometimes in critical, life-or-death situations. Sometimes the caller might be vulnerable, in shock or worried – and how they are treated and spoken to by the person that picks up the phone is crucial.
Especially with emergency 999 calls we might need to calm the person down and get them to focus on what’s happened – we need to take down detailed, accurate information so we can get officers to the scene as soon as possible.
It’s a hugely rewarding job and there is a good camaraderie among the team… we have to support each other.
Are there calls that stick in your head?
It's hard to pinpoint individual calls as we deal with such a wide range every day – but one particular call does stick out.
A man clearly in distress came through on the 101 number… he said he wanted to end his life. I chatted to him, built a rapport and directed officers, and later ambulance staff, to help him.
The next day, by coincidence, I picked up a call from the same man; he wanted to say thanks to me and the police officers for their help as he was now getting the support he needed. It was a proud moment and our collective efforts may well have saved his life.
Last year, our team spent 131,000 hours talking to, supporting and helping people in need – but those minutes spent chatting to that man were undoubtedly among the most valuable.
Is it a stressful job?
I guess it’s the same as many jobs, there can be stressful moments where a cool head is needed. You can certainly experience a full range of emotions in one day: emotional calls, angry calls, amusing calls and nuisance calls.
It’s what makes it such an interesting role, no two days are ever the same… you never know who’ll be on the line when you next pick up the phone.
Police forces regularly remind people not to abuse the police call system with trivial issues or non-police matters. But do we still get some bizarre calls?
Absolutely. In recent weeks we’ve had a woman dialling 999 for a lift home from a party with her teenage son; a woman wanting to complain she’d been on hold for 30 minutes to her GP’s surgery, and another woman asking us to alert her employer she was sick and wouldn’t be in for work. She couldn’t get through so asked us to pass on the message!
We’ve even had someone reporting an injured pigeon. They may have been a bird lover and were concerned – but it certainly doesn’t warrant a call to the police.
Every minute is precious and could be used helping callers in genuine need… we can’t afford to be wasting time on non-police matters.
What training do new recruits receive?
New starters undergo a seven-week training programme. We coach them through the process of taking calls, the IT side of things, they shadow experienced call handlers, and take part in role plays where they field ‘dummy’ calls to see how they respond.
There’s lots of expertise in the team and help at hand and by the end of the seven weeks the new recruits are ready to take live calls on their own.
If you could give just one piece of advice to new starters, what would it be?
It would be that, no matter what their background, people who’ve made it through the process bring lots of very valuable life and work experience to the team. Use those skills and remember we’re here to help the public however we can.