Abuse the 999 system and you’re putting lives at risk - warn PSNI

Inspector John Stevenson, Chief Inspector Billy McIlwaine and Sergeant Sam Young in the North Area Contact Centre in Maydown.
Inspector John Stevenson, Chief Inspector Billy McIlwaine and Sergeant Sam Young in the North Area Contact Centre in Maydown.
  • In 2015/16 the PSNI received 493,789 calls for service
  • Of these, 18 per cent were received via the 999 system
  • Of these, 9 per cent were assessed as requiring an emergency response

Police have appealed to the public not to abuse the police emergency 999 system because they’re putting people’s lives at risk.

That’s the warning from police today as they released audio of genuine 999 calls from people complaining about matters such as a noisy neighbour.

Police also revealed one caller phoned them 1,200 times in a three-month period. The person subsequently received an adult caution.

Speaking from Maydown, one of three PSNI Contact Management Centres in Northern Ireland, Sergeant Sam Young said: “This is the first point of contact that the police are going to deal with, no matter how big or small.

“Don’t abuse it because while you’re on trying to be funny with the call handler, that call handler can’t take a 999 call from someone who really needs it.”

In September, the North Area Contact Management Centre received 18,013 calls. The Maydown switchboard dealt with an additional 11,264 calls from the public asking for a specific officer or department.

Don’t abuse it because while you’re on trying to be funny with the call handler, that call handler can’t take a 999 call from someone who really needs it

Sgt. Sam Young

Call handlers work 12-hour shifts, and receive a variety of calls. They’re trained to take all the relevant details from the caller and assess whether the call is an emergency or not.

One call handler, who’s been in the job for a year, said on any given day he could be dealing with calls from people who are suicidal to people whose lives are at risk.

“You don’t know what you’re going to get,” he said. “Some calls last two minutes and some last two hours. When you get a call and you try and type it out on the screen, and you hear someone getting battered or hit, and you know if this takes an extra one-minute, it could be really dangerous; that this one minute could change everything. All we’re doing is looking at screens. We can’t go out and see them face-to-face, or give them a hug and make sure they’re okay.”

The way the call handler deals with the call is crucial.

Police aired an audio recording of a female in distress in a domestic situation. The handler managed to keep the woman on the phone and advise her how to stay safe until resources arrived on scene.

Call handlers are also trained to recognise key words that demand different responses, such as knife or if someone says they’re trapped.

“It means no matter what the supervisor is doing, they’ll come and help when you when they hear those words,” said the call handler.

A dispatcher within call handling, who has access to information which shows them where all police cars and officers are at any given time, can then identify the most appropriate police resource and task them. Details of them are passed on to the officers tasked to the incident.

“Most of the calls are genuine,” said a dispatcher at Maydown, who said their work is “saving lives”.

“There are a lot of vulnerable people out there and you have to address their needs and issues.”

The dispatcher described the abuse of the system as “frustrating”, including when people call 999 because they’ve no credit left on their phone and they want a lift home.

“When you send crew to something, and you divert them to something, you know, but they’ve said the buzz words and you have to send them to it, but you can’t take the chance you have to assess the call on the merit of what they’ve told you. They’re putting lives at risk,” said the dispatcher.

Chief Inspector Billy McIlwaine is in charge of contact management for the PSNI working in Castlereagh. He said the Contact Management Centre is the first contact many people will have with police “so it is very important because people that work here take instant decisions on how to respond. and sometimes providing urgent safeguarding information to people”.

“It’s everything from mundane trivial incidents right up to life threatening incidents, and it’s crucial and critical call handlers are on top of their game and give appropriate advice to our uniform colleagues and our detective colleagues on the ground,” said CI McIlwaine.

“Everytime you dial 999, someone in here will answer that call and, if it’s a trivial incident and doesn’t require a police response, that person has to stay on the line while he or she is talking to you. While they’re talking to you there could be someone else with a really urgent reason to contact police and that person is being delayed and that response is being delayed. So, sometimes, you can be putting other peoples’ lives at risk by tying up the 999 system unnecessarily.”

He added: “Most people, when they contact police, they’ll lift the phone and dial 999 or 101 and then it’s up to the people here to start the process of assigning what sort of response they think is required.”

Police say 40 per cent of calls are resolved without police having to attend.