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When we're faced with a real emergency, none of us wants to be left dangling on the end of the telephone line

Editor's viewpoint

999. It is the one telephone number that we all know. From childhood we are taught that if we are faced with an emergency, or are witnesses to one, we should dial this number right away and help will be on hand. It allows us to summon police, the fire brigade, ambulances and even the coastguard.

But are the calls from those in distress always answered as promptly as they should be?

In the case of the PSNI it seems not, with one call, admittedly an extreme example, taking three minutes and 35 seconds to get a response.

That would seem like a lifetime to someone in dire need. We don't know the circumstances of the call, but presumably it was a real emergency. Just count out that time on your watch and try to imagine what you would be feeling if there was a break-in at your home or if you were under attack or had been the victim of crime, and you desperately wanted the police to come to your assistance. On average, the police answer 999 calls after seven seconds, which is a commendable response time. But obviously some take longer, as every day around 40 callers hang up before their calls are answered.

Again, the reason is unknown. If they were mischievous calls then that is a waste of police time and the callers should face sanction. If it was because callers felt they were waiting too long - or because their call for help was interrupted due to an ongoing crime - then it shows a need for better processes to handle the calls.

Either way, given that police attempt to follow up all calls which are abandoned, that puts a further strain on already stretched resources.

With numerous local police stations having closed or only operating on a part-time basis, the public need to feel confident that help is only a phone call away when required. There may not be the physical reassurance of a station nearby, but good communications can bridge the gap.

The PSNI is not unique in its response to 999 calls, but the statistics show that it is a service which needs to be kept under constant review to ensure that it provides rapid help when needed.

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