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My switchboard staff do top job: 999 centre chief

By Luke Barnes

Published 17/11/2016

Police are investigating.
Police are investigating.

The head of the PSNI's 999 centre has defended the police's handling of emergency calls.

Chief Inspector Billy McIlwaine said statistics were only part of the story.

Mr McIlwaine was speaking after figures obtained by this newspaper revealed that more than 1,300 emergency callers were left waiting for over 30 minutes in the last year.

A further 575 had to wait between 25 and 30 minutes.

Mr McIlwaine pointed out that, for some of the more rural areas of Northern Ireland, a 30-minute response time was actually a good performance.

He added: "It's not all about how quickly a call arrives on our switchboard or with our call handling people to when someone arrives because an awful lot is done before police are even dispatched."

In one recent example a call handler was instrumental in saving a suicidal man, reassuring him and talking to him for 14 minutes until police arrived.

Mr McIlwaine added: "I do think the call handlers, dispatchers and supervisors do an incredible job every day and it's not recognised to the extent it should be. For the vast majority of calls for service that come into the police my people are the first contact."

Cheryl Dougan, a call handler, said: "We're trained extremely well, we know the signs, the things to look out for, the type of language people are using and we have an ear for an emergency."

The three police 999 centres in Northern Ireland plan to update their telephone system to ensure calls get routed quicker.

There will also be improvements made to the command and control software, which will make it easier for operators to gather and integrate information in real time.

Mr McIlwaine acknowledged that cuts have taken a toll on the police's ability to respond - in the last five years the budget has been sliced by more than a quarter-of-a-billion pounds.

He added: "Is a shortage of police officers contributing to attendance times? At times probably yes, but there is no constant feed of calls and constant stream of officers to answer. You can't predict it."

He said that high-profile incidents, such as fatal accidents and security alerts, could create drops in response times as they drew in police resources.

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