Police call centre finances could be questioned by councillors following upgrade delays

Morale booster: Poster used to support police call centre staff
Morale booster: Poster used to support police call centre staff

South Yorkshire’s chief constable and police and crime commissioner are to be invited to meet councillors who want to quiz them over potential penalty clauses in the contract for the force’s long-delayed new communications system.

The Smart system was expected to go live in the Spring on last year but in fact was introduced only towards the close of 2018 because of technical problems in getting the equipment to work as expected for callers using the 999 or 101 telephone systems.

A further call-back facility, allowing people to ask officers to call them back rather than face long waits in 101 queues, is also due to be introduced in a move intended to take pressure off the call-handlers who deal with enquiries, but that remains under test despite aspirations to get it into operation before Christmas.

Difficulties with the system were raised at a full meeting of Rotherham Council, where Coun Stuart Sansome, who serves on the county’s police and crime panel – a body which holds Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings to account – offered to invite him and Chief Constable Stephen Watson to a seminar at the town hall to discuss the problems.

Coun Alan Cowles raised questions about the new system, saying: “The chief constable issued a statement saying that although the new system was live, people would not see a change in performance.”

He asked Coun Sansome: “Will you ask the two gentlemen to come to this chamber and explain why there is no benefit and what, if anything, we can expect for our money?”

Coun Sansome responded: “I have no problem in asking the chief constable and PCC to attend a seminar at this building.

“I do share your frustrations, Councillor Cowles, because we want this system up and running.

“We did challenge the commissioner around penalty clauses concerning the delay.

“Perhaps if they did agree to visit this chamber, that would be one of the questions to be asked.”

The Smart telephone system is a multi-million pound investment ordered because pressure on police telephone systems has grown enormously in recent years and the existing technology at the Atlas Court call centre in Sheffield was long out of date and relied on a series of computer servers patched together in a way which was never initially intended.

The new system is intended to speed up the system by helping call handling staff to deal with queries more quickly, but Mr Watson has said previously the key to improving service is to manage demand.

Putting in more staff to take calls would mean having fewer people available to then deal with the work generated, so that is not regarded as a viable option.

Many 101 callers are seeking officers for follow up information on incidents and one aim is to re-educate police staff to provide direct dial numbers, which if successful would slice off a significant percentage of current call volumes to Atlas Court.