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Our 999 emergency service must improve

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 17/11/2016

'Nearly a quarter of the 19,500 emergency calls in the year up to April past took longer than 15 minutes for officers to respond'
'Nearly a quarter of the 19,500 emergency calls in the year up to April past took longer than 15 minutes for officers to respond'

There is an expectation among the public that a 999 call to police will bring a speedy response. But that is not always the case as our report today reveals. In the last year it took officers more than 30 minutes to arrive in 1,300 cases.

Nearly a quarter of the 19,500 emergency calls in the year up to April past took longer than 15 minutes for officers to respond. In only 53% of cases did officers arrive within 10 minutes. Imagine the feelings of someone who makes an emergency call in fear after either they or their property is attacked and have to wait half an hour for help to arrive.

A senior PSNI officer defends the force's response to 999 calls and says that statistics do not tell the whole story. That is correct and there are many factors which can affect response times.

An obvious one is the PSNI's resources after swingeing budget cuts over the past few years. The force is below recommended strength and tightened funding is affecting overtime by officers.

As well, there has been a huge reduction in the number of police stations around the province. Just over 10 years ago there were 140, now the figure is well below half that and only two stations are open 24 hours a day.

While the force may be more mobile, the lack of manned stations, particularly in rural areas, must impact on response times in those areas.

Those who take the emergency calls are also trained to prioritise them when demand peaks which could also affect response times. Even emergencies have to be graded and those which are deemed to involve a risk to life must always be answered first.

Another problem which ties up resources is the number of hoax calls received at police call centres with callers claiming stolen wheelie bins or broken wing mirrors demanding an emergency response. In one extraordinary case, a caller made 1,200 abusive calls to operators in a three-month period. Quite rightly this caller was later prosecuted.

There is a recurring problem of people abusing the emergency call service. Tying up operators can place people with real emergencies in greater danger and those guilty of making hoax or abusive calls should be prosecuted. But even given the mitigating factors, the PSNI must see if its performance in responding to emergency calls can be improved or else press for further resources to ensure the public gets the service it expects.

Belfast Telegraph

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