‘Language barrier’ concern after 999 shake-up

DIFFICULTIES understanding northern dialects and local geo­graphy will put lives at risk following the closure of regional emergency services control rooms, it has been claimed.
Systems failures at control centres have forced 999 staff to rely on local knowledge. Picture: TSPLSystems failures at control centres have forced 999 staff to rely on local knowledge. Picture: TSPL
Systems failures at control centres have forced 999 staff to rely on local knowledge. Picture: TSPL

In submissions to the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee, local authorities have questioned the decision to close all police and fire control rooms north of Dundee.

Colin Mackenzie, chief executive of Aberdeenshire Council, accused the fire service of a “complete lack of meaningful consultation” over its decision to close its Aberdeen control room, while he said consultation from the police had been “minimal”.

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He said there were fears call-centre staff elsewhere in the country would not understand North-east dialects and place names. His concerns were echo­ed by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Orkney Islands Council, which was “extremely concerned” by the proposals.

In January, Scotland’s police and fire boards approved plans to reduce the number of control rooms aimed at saving ­£74 million by 2026.

Following the phased closures, Motherwell and Govan will form a West Area Control centre for police, with Bilston Glen near Edinburgh covering the East Command Area and Dundee the North Command Area.

Inverness will lose its police control room to become the new hub for the command and control of major incidents and national events anywhere in Scotland.

Fire service control rooms in Aberdeen, Inverness, Dumfries, Fife and Falkirk are being lost, while Johnstone in Renfrewshire, Edinburgh and Dundee will remain open.

Mackenzie said: “Amongst [our] concerns are doubts about call-centre operatives elsewhere in the country understanding local dialect and place names in the North-­east and misdirecting appliances, leading to delays in responding. It would appear that the ­decisions by both Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service were based largely on the savings to be made by reducing the number of centres.

“The lack of any control rooms or service centres in the area of the country with the largest concentration of critical infrastructure appears to be more related to the high cost of living in the North-east, rather than a more strategic approach.”

Earlier this week it emerged emergency control staff in ­Aberdeen have twice been left to rely on their local knowledge following system failures in the past year. Details obtained by campaigners using Freedom of ­Information laws showed emergency computer systems went down on 23 May and 3 June.

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In its submission to the justice committee, Orkney Islands Council said it “is extremely concerned at the direction ­taken by this proposal, given the vast area to be covered by the proposed new North ­Command Area Control in Dundee and the impossibility of the staff, with the best will in the world, being able to ­familiarise themselves with the detailed geography of the entire North area”.

It added: “Each part of this area, Orkney included, has its own local dialect and numerous locations with similar or identical names, which an operator with local knowledge would immediately recognise.

“An operator based in Dundee would take considerably longer to identify the precise location and the potential for error is high. In our view this represents a significant increase in risk to remote and rural areas of the north of Scotland, which has not been taken into account.”

Scotland’s eight regional ­police forces and fire services were merged to create Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service on 1 April last year.

Responding to the committee, Assistant Chief Constable Mike McCormick of Police Scotland said: “It was apparent from the introduction of Police Scotland that there was a pressing need to integrate and remodel the provision of the Contact Command and Control Division (C3) to ensure that Police Scotland, as a ­single national service, can meet its responsibility to ensure parity of service and access to expertise and support right across the country.

Chief Officer Alasdair Hay of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service said: “Local knowledge is held by fire crews within fire stations based in local communities and it is the combination of technology, skill and knowledge that ensures control and frontline firefighters provide the right response.”