West Yorkshire Police force is set to restructure its call handling operations next month as it continues to face record levels of demand.
The force will split its customer contact centre across two sites – one in Wakefield and another in Bradford – to give it a wider area from which to recruit staff, while dispatch teams will sit alongside them to provide additional capacity in the event of a major incident.
The centre used to record around 4,000 contacts on an average day via its 999 and 101 phone numbers and the various online options, including live chat.
But the level of daily contacts now routinely stands at 4,500, due in part to a 15 per cent increase in 999 call volumes.
Tom Donohoe, who manages the centre, said: “Even though only around 20 per cent will be critical risk, they’ve got to respond to every 999 call as if it could be the most serious.”
Despite the pressures, West Yorkshire regularly receives visits from other forces keen to learn how it has successfully handled the increasing demand.
“Currently we’re the best performing contact centre in the country for 999 calls,” Mr Donohoe said. “We haven’t abandoned a 999 call for 14 months now.”
Calls are classed as abandoned if they are terminated in the time between the BT operator connecting them and someone answering, with three seconds the fastest possible answer time.
The average 999 call waiting time in West Yorkshire stood at between just seven and eight seconds in June and July.
What can be far more variable are the waiting times for the non-emergency 101 number, an issue many forces have found a challenge when prioritising the rising number of 999 calls.
Mr Donohoe said: “On a busy New Year’s Eve we’ll generally handle around 1,600 999 calls. On July 7 this year, it was 2,300.
“We still managed not to abandon one but obviously our 101 service wasn’t pretty.”
West Yorkshire has been trialling online alternatives for 101 callers with reporting forms for offences such as anti-social behaviour, drug dealing and hate crime, and now an online tracker for people who have reported an offence and just want an update.
It also promotes the Ask the Police website, a national resource providing answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.
Mr Donohoe said: “We do find an awful lot of our calls are not our business. They’re people ringing up for outcomes, nuisance calls, calls for social services.
“If someone gets stuck, they’re going to ring 101. We can cope with that. It’s when they ring 999.”
Understanding why people call the police instead of other agencies and what is behind spikes in 999 calls continues to be a key focus for the centre’s managers.
One piece of work found a correlation between the weather and 999 calls, with higher temperatures meaning more demand.
Another area which has been reviewed is the retention of staff as the centre regularly sees staff move into other force roles.
It is expected that adding a Bradford location in addition to the current Wakefield site will help with the filling of vacancies, but a new policy is also being introduced to prevent call handlers making internal moves within the first nine months of joining.
Work is also under way to establish a modern apprenticeship of between 12 and 15 months to help slow the turnover of staff.