South Yorkshire’s overdue £12m police contact system will not “be a panacea which means no-one has to wait” to have calls answered when it finally goes into service, Chief Constable Stephen Watson has warned.
The force is affected by a national trend which has seen a sharp rise in demand from telephone callers trying to contact police and that has resulted in long delays at times for those using the 101 service, rather than the emergency 999 number.
Mr Watson expects the new computerised system, called Smart Contact, to “give a much better service” than the current system when it is introduced, but he has warned police will not be able to spend their way out of meeting future demand, if levels continue to increase.
He said: “Over time, with the growth in demand, we could quantify and cost up spending another £10m on Atlas Court and it would probably not make a jot of difference.
“This will give a much better service. I don’t think it will be a panacea which means no-one has to wait.
“Demand is enormous and seems to be growing inexorably. There are some very simple things people don’t appreciate.
“Twenty years ago if someone had a crash on the motorway they would have gone to a yellow phone on the hard shoulder. We can have 600 calls within five minutes. We have to try to evolve the way we deal with these things,” he said.
Mr Watson offered no specific suggestions and accepted that the police service occupies a unique place in public life, but said: “In many respects, we are using technology to facilitate our ability to cope. There are broader questions.
“If you want to fill in your tax return it is an online thing. HMRC never gave you the choice to continue speaking to a human. We are not in that world. Much of the public service and much of the private sector have had to cater for dealing with this demand in fairly radical ways.”
Smart Connect relies on computer technology to speed up the process of dealing with people who contact police and is meant to interface with another system for internal police use, with the expectation of call handers resolving cases more quickly, so being able to move on to the next caller.
The new system was meant to be introduced in March and that was but back to June because of technical problems and just days before that date, the launch was cancelled because of continued problems.
Police are concerned that the system must work properly from day one, to ensure public service is maintained, and increased staff from the supplying company have been working to resolve problems.
Councillors who sit on the Police and Crime Panel, a watchdog body which exists to hold Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings to account, have been invited to visit the Atlas Court contact centre in Sheffield, to see how staff work and the problems they deal with.
Some councillors have been long-standing critics of the situation, with residents complaining of long delays when they have tried to speak to police on the 101 line.
The Humberside force is expecting to use a similar system to South Yorkshire, which will be installed when that version is operating correctly.