Call waiting

Vol. 48, No. 3 | NZPA | Wed April 1st, 2015

Once again, pressure is coming on Police comms staff and some calls are falling off the radar, raising the spectre of service failure.

Police communications centres are struggling with staffing levels, again, and some non-emergency calls have lengthy waiting times before being answered.

Police is well aware of the problem and is taking it seriously, but is struggling to train new staff in time to plug the gaps.

One comms staff member said there were periods where demand was matched, “but there are massive periods where we don’t match it”.

Some non-emergency callers had been left hanging on for up to 58 minutes.

“Recently, I have seen general calls queued by up to 20 with the longest wait time about one hour at the same time as some 111 calls waited more than two minutes to be answered, which is appalling.”

Comms headsetOn some days, the expectations of demand were “massively under”. “With these low expectations it increases the chances of failure by Police to calls for assistance.”

The only immediate option for Police currently was to offer overtime to cover, he said, but in some cases, even the overtimers weren’t filling the gaps.

The “extremely dedicated” call takers were doing their best, but some districts were now dealing with complaints from the public about their non-emergency calls not being answered, particularly in the evening and at weekends.

It appears that while 111 calls take priority, as they should, some CRL and *555 calls are falling by the wayside. The worrying aspect is that one of those unattended calls could be for an emergency or a crime that goes unreported.

“With the CRL calls that are abandoned [ie, the caller has hung up], this generally means that for each lost call, it is potentially one less crime stat report,” said one Police supervisor.

Superintendent Dave Trappitt, Police national manager for the comms centres, has acknowledged there are pressures coming on the centres. However, he said, despite some slightly longer wait times, there was no evidence that this was influencing reporting.

“If anything, more crimes are being reported through CRL, according to the figures.”

The number of 111 calls has increased by 19,000 in the past year. The average time taken to answer 111 calls is 11 seconds, calculated over the past 12 months, which has increased from six seconds.

However, Mr Trappitt said, the average time for a unit to arrive at an emergency event was shortened by 15 seconds in February. “This means that the average time it took to both answer a 111 call and then get a police unit to a genuine emergency in February actually decreased by 9 seconds. This is a good result.”

He said the community could be assured that real emergencies were being attended quicker.

The volume of calls in CRL actually decreased by 40,000 since CRL was implemented, he said, as Police worked to ensure non-CRL calls were taken out of the system.

In the current year, 63 per cent of CRL calls were answered within 30 seconds, 7 per cent less than the target service level. Eight per cent of CRL calls were ended by callers in the queue, Mr Trappitt said. “That is too high. The [call centre] industry aims to not exceed 4 per cent.”

Planning was under way to identify the number of staff needed to meet service levels in 2015-16 and, if required, that would include any increase in staff numbers to cater for summer demand in 2016, he said. Actual staff numbers were down over the summer period because of a “burst of attrition” – an increase in the normal average of seven staff a month – exacerbated by a time lag of between three and six months while new staff are selected and trained, Mr Trappitt said.

It took only a couple of highly visible events to create a surge in non-emergency calls and the comms teams could be overwhelmed with single-incident calls: for example, a broken-down vehicle on a motorway or debris falling off a truck. “The first call may be answered in seconds, but there may be many other calls about the same incident. Some people might not realise that the reason their call wasn’t answered quickly was that Police were already answering calls on the same incident.”

Call-handling times were also a factor in staff availability for new calls, Mr Trappitt said.

The average time spent on emergency calls in 2014 was 6 minutes 31 seconds, which was an increase on the 5 minutes 52 seconds average call time in 2013.

One possible reason for the increase was that the number of family violence-related calls had grown in response to increased public awareness of such crimes. “The emphasis is on the victim, so in emergency events, the call-takers will hold a person on the line until a police unit arrives at the scene.”

There were two other factors that affected the functioning of the comms centres, he said: the roster and the quality of call-handling.

“Working within a set rotating roster as required by the collective agreement, we sometimes lack the flexibility to populate certain peak time periods,” Mr Trappitt said.

“We also need to explore options for better call handling. The unsung heroes of the comms centres are the quality assurance teams,” he said. “They are working alongside staff, providing support and advice on call-answering techniques to ensure quality information is obtained and support to victims is provided in the most timely manner.”

Along with that, he said, there was a need to reduce demand and educate the public about the emergency call system. Many callers on the 111 system were not ringing about emergencies; about 80 per cent of 111 calls did not result in a Priority 1 dispatch.

Those at the coalface recognise that work is being done to try to rectify the situation, but believe there is a wider circle of responsibility within Police than just the call centres.

The usual issues arise: staff are under pressure, they can’t get leave, so call in sick instead; the centres try to cover the gaps by asking staff to work overtime. “Staff have started turning their phones off at weekend,” according to one member.

The main problem is obvious, he said: “Projected demand does not match staff levels.” – ELLEN BROOK

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