'Social media fuelling rise in police calls in South Yorkshire'
The rise of social media is placing police under greater demand than ever, says a dispatcher whose job it is to send officers where they're most needed.
Paula Pittendrigh joined South Yorkshire Police in 2002 and over the last 17 years has witnessed the huge increase in 999 and non-emergency calls coming into the force.
The 41-year-old mum-of-four is part of a team of about two dozen dispatchers based at Atlas Court in Sheffield who are tasked with assigning officers to the most pressing jobs and ensuring they have all the information they need to keep themselves and the public safe.
While the number of incidents they're dealing with has soared since she took on the role, the size of the team remains roughly the same, meaning it can be an incredibly demanding job.
She has to juggle as many as 60 incidents at any one time, from assaults and burglaries to missing people and and suicidal callers, prioritising the most urgent when as is often the case there are too few officers to respond to every call instantly.
"In the last four years especially, it's got so much busier," she says.
"You used to get a bit of down time when you were working nights but now the demand is constant."
Paula handles what are known in the business as ‘immediates’ – incidents which require a blue-lights response, like assaults or burglaries which are ongoing – and ‘priorities’ – which are still important but do not require officers to attend so urgently, such as a break-in which happened overnight but has just been reported.
She and her colleagues provide officers with details including the location, information about the suspected offender and any safety risks.
“We have a long list of incidents to keep on top of at any one time, so you have to multi-task and ensure you’re always on the ball,” she says.
“It’s very difficult. We’d love to get someone out to everyone immediately but we don’t always have enough officers and you have to prioritise the most pressing incidents because our job is to protect life and property.
“You do genuinely feel sorry for people and we try our hardest to keep in touch with everyone who’s called so they know what’s happening when we can’t send an officer straight away.
“Sometimes if you have an older person who’s been broken into and is quite distressed, but you don’t have an officer available straight away, just having a little chat with them can provide the reassurance they need.”
Paula can’t say exactly why the number of calls has grown so rapidly in recent years but believes public spending cuts, leaving police to pick up the pieces where other services might previously have stepped in, and the rise of social media have played a part.
“We’re getting many more online crimes reported, like threats made over Facebook, but people often don’t realise that it’s not just crimes we deal with – it’s missing people, vulnerable people with mental health problems, and much more,” she says.
Paula used to work as an air hostess and travel agent but decided to change career in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, which she said led to great uncertainty and a number of redundancies in the industry.
She was drawn to becoming police call handler – the role she did for around a year before switching to be a dispatcher – because she enjoyed working with the public.
Call handlers and dispatchers receive extensive training to prepare them for any scenario, but Paula, who grew up and still lives in Aston, Rotherham, says much of the job comes naturally.
“You just think if your friend was sat next to you and was upset what would you say to them,” she explains.
“It’s not just a job to us. We really do care. There’s a lot of job satisfaction because you do help people, and I’m proud to work for the police.”
Paula has helped coordinate the response to numerous tragedies during her time on the force but it is often the deeply personal cases rather than the biggest incidents which leave the most lasting impression.
She will never forget one case where she was able to help a boy whose mother had gone missing.
“This young lad was very upset because his mum wasn't home and it was one in the morning,” she says.
“We knew where his mum was and we were trying to get someone to check on her welfare but while that was happening I kept him on the phone chatting to him about school and Fortnite.
“It was heartbreaking to hear his little voice when his mum rang him.”
As a dispatcher, Paula works 12 hour shifts, doing two nights and two days before getting four days off.
The long hours and frequent night shifts, coupled with the fact she often has to work public holidays like Christmas and New Year’s Eve, might not sound ideal for someone with four young children.
But she believes it’s great for parents, enabling you to see your little ones much more than you might if you worked a typical nine-to-five job.
Paula works closely with police officers but rarely gets to meet the men and women she speaks to over the phone and assigns jobs.
That didn’t stop her marrying one, however, after meeting at a works do.
She and PC Roy Pittendrigh, who is part of the Rotherham North Safer Neighbourhood Team, have now been together for 10 years and have four sons together.
“We were at a social event and someone said to me ‘that’s Roy’, but he didn’t look anything like I expected him to. He sounded quite tall and broad over the phone but he was actually quite skinny at the time,” she says.
“There are some officers I’ve spoken to for years and years and I feel I know them but it’s strange to think I could walk past them in the street and not recognise them.”
Despite both their parents being in the force, Paula acknowledges her job doesn’t hold the same glamour for their children as her husband’s.
“They think their dad’s job is more exciting he drives police cars and has a Taser,” she says.
“They used to think I just went home and played Happy Mrs Chicken from Peppa Pig but now they know I boss police officers around.”