Changes planned as police look to improve performance on answering phones

Police chiefs should be ready to make a decision next month on how to improve the service for callers trying to contact the South Yorkshire force as the Chief Constable revealed they would need an extra 132 staff to provide an “optimum” telephone service at peak times.

Thursday, 7th November 2019, 12:04 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th November 2019, 5:02 pm
Atlas Court call centre

New computer equipment costing millions of pounds has been installed at the force’s Atlas Court communications centre but it is acknowledged that is not enough to cope with the volume of calls staff have to deal with.

A review of how the centre operates has been going on for months and a business plan is expected to be ready for Chief Constable Steven Watson and his senior commanders to consider next month.

It will set out the available options, with the expectation the force will look for a ‘middle ground’ which provides an improved service without costing so much it would mean spending cash that is really needed to maintain front line services.

Details of the developments emerged at a meeting of South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings’ Public Accountability Board, where he holds the South Yorkshire force to account for its performance.

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Mr Watson told the meeting: “Public contact with police is really important. There is an ongoing review into Atlas Court that is coming to an end.

“A business case is expected to land with us within the month. It will provide a number of options around service delivery,” he said.

The difficulty the force faced was balancing resources and demand: “Our default position is to work as hard as we can with what we have got.

“We have invested heavily in technology. We have to work a lot smarter within that environment, we have already seen quite a bit of improvement. Abandonment rates are falling, response times are improving.

“The reality is if you take the requirement for optimum performance at a time of maximum demand, we would need to resource the room with another 132 call handlers.

“Clearly, we don’t have those resources. We have, within the business case, to work out a middle way between expending money we don’t have and investing sensibly to fund better performance in the room,” he said.

*South Yorkshire Police’s problem with having its 101 telephone line swamped by callers may be partly down to historic decisions made by a previous command regime to funnel all contact through a central switchboard.

That reached the point where officers were instructed not to give their personal numbers to crime victims, forcing them to call 101 instead and unwittingly adding to a snowball effect of increasing call numbers which reached a climax over the last few years, with complaints of extended delays for those wanting to get in touch.

The reason for the 101-only edict was that it was regarded there was potential for callers to feel ‘let down’ if they tried to contact an officer who did not respond as expected.

But that put increased pressure on call handlers and as demand has increased for other reasons, such as mobile phones giving people instant access,

Chief Constable Stephen Watson said: “A lot of calls coming into Atlas Court are people asking about what happened with their crime, when they should be contacting the police officer.

“That would reduce demand and improve public satisfaction,” he said.

“The issue is why the system was designed; It was anticipated that if call handling demand is allowed to be diffused, there is a danger of losing one or two calls.

“In order to design out that risk, everything was mandated to come through 101, to the extent where officers were told they could not give a member of the public their phone number.

“That seems, naturally, the wrong way to deal with the problem. It was to design out the risk that someone might let someone down,” he said.

The practical result was that it contributed to a position where the call handling system was allowed to “superheat”.

“It is solving a theoretical risk at the expense of doing core business in a practical way,” he said.

Work has now started to reverse that situation, with officers encouraged to promote direct contact with the public for follow up calls to existing incidents.

*A ‘call back’ facility has been introduced by South Yorkshire Police to try to ease the burden on its overstretched call centre and reduce the risk of frustrated callers hanging up instead of talking to police as they would expect to do.

Changes to the technology at the Atlas Court communications centre have allowed the change to be implemented, but it is only used at times of high demand.

Police officers responsible for managing the Atlas Court centre, and the force’s response to calls from the public, are able to switch the system on at times of high demand.