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999 response times need to improve ‘within weeks’

Police call answering times need to improve in Staffordshire, the area’s commissioner has said, after hearing that a person who dialled 999 was kept waiting for 10 minutes before they hung up.

Another call to the non-emergency 101 service went unanswered for 90 minutes, a meeting heard last Monday, while Staffordshire police, fire and crime commissioner Ben Adams said he had twice been left waiting for a response for more than half an hour, (writes local democracy reporter Kerry Ashdown).

The issue was raised at the latest Staffordshire Police, Fire and Crime Panel session. Members were told that extra call-handling staff had been recruited and other action taken to tackle the issue.

Panel member Keith Walker told Mr Adams: “The Achilles’ heel in the force seems to be the contact centre and performance in answering 101 and 999 calls.

“It was a priority in your report for last year, it still remains a priority, but it doesn’t seem to be improving.

“A few days ago I logged onto a retired police officers’ Facebook page, and I came across three posts: one was a person who had contacted 101 and after 46 minutes hung up. The second example was somebody who contacted 101, waited 90 minutes and when the call was answered were referred to the resolution centre, who called back seven hours later.

“The third one was somebody who dialled 999 and after 10 minutes of waiting hung up. There are clearly significant and totally unacceptable issues in the way that calls from the public are being handled – when can the public expect to see some improvement in this?”

Mr Adams replied: “Keith, you’re absolutely right. It’s why, along with response, it’s my top priority and it’s going to stay there.

“I cannot understand why the service perhaps in the past hasn’t seen this as important as we do – it’s absolutely fundamental. We’ve got a big increase in volumes post-lockdown; everybody knew that was coming.

“There’s a big increase in volumes around the country. So why aren’t we dealing with them at least as well as the rest of the country?”

He added: “It takes months to train people. We’ve had two tranches of 30 people recruited into the team in the last six or seven months and that’s beginning to have an impact.

“There was terrible trouble with covid at the end in terms of staffing levels, sometimes 40% down on any one shift. I’ve had personal experience myself – twice I’ve used it and waited over 35 minutes.

“I think it’s absolutely essential we see it improve and the chief’s under no misapprehension about this. He’s just employed a new chief superintendent who’s vastly experienced, specifically in contact.

“We’re investigating technology, we’ve had peer reviews and people visiting other areas and people from other areas visiting us to assist. We’re looking at how they do things better.

“I don’t think I can be comfortable if this isn’t in a different place by the end of the year. I know it’s getting the attention – it’s got the resources and there is the funding for the extra staff.

“We need to see improvement within weeks, and I think we need it to be at least average by Christmas. But my ambition is we’re back in the top 10 in the country for contact, which is where people in Staffordshire would expect us to be.”

There was also criticism of the way the commissioner’s annual report had been presented and the office’s website.

Panel chairman Coun Bernard Peters said: “Your report arriving late has come as a major disappointment – to receive it late on Friday gave members very little time to read it or deliberate at all.

“It’s a very wordy document. You talk about what you are going to do but you don’t tell us how you are going to go about it.

“We can’t see any examples of a work programme, any demonstrable milestones or any key performance indicators. How can we monitor your performance and what you are doing without anything to measure it against?

“We have had some feedback about the commissioner’s webpage not being as informative as perhaps you would expect it to be. It may be that performance indicators could well end up on the webpage with a link to a dashboard.”

Mr Adams responded: “My understanding was that the draft of the report was issued 10 days ago and there was a detail on the commissioning section that followed on Friday. I apologise that the whole document wasn’t ready 10 days ago, but I think 95% of it was.

“I think your statement that it is wordy is fair enough – I think it is wordy as well. But what I’ve been keen to do here is set out a different type of annual report.

“I’m absolutely determined to be open and transparent about what we’re doing and as far as possible to explain the value of the police, fire and crime commissioner and to evidence the activity that goes on that uses public funding.

“I’ve sought to reflect what progress has been made in terms of activity and planning and, as far as possible, to evidence the particular work that my office has done that is largely in my control – the service delivery is in the control of our new chiefs, and it is my job to hold them to account.”

Panel member and Stoke-on-Trent city councillor Jackie Barnes told Mr Adams that she had not received responses to emails.

She said: “I have emailed you two or three times and I’ve never got a response, even a ‘thank you for your email’.

“I think communication is absolutely imperative if you wish to be transparent.”

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