Police call room mistakes could lead to tragedy

When you look at the huge number of calls which are handled daily by Police Scotland, it is no surprise that a small percentage of them are not dealt with as well as they could be.

Staff answer calls at the Police Scotland control room at Bilston Glen.
Staff answer calls at the Police Scotland control room at Bilston Glen.

After all, the call handlers are people: human error is something which cannot be avoided 100 per cent of the time.

However, we do need to ensure that the best job is done as much as possible - and that these incidents are properly scrutinised by police chiefs to make sure that the people dealing with daily public calls can learn from their mistakes.

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Some of the errors related to serious incidents - one, a suicidal man who was allowed to leave the phone call without a call handler properly recording his name or where he was at the time and another, where handler failed to properly prioritise a call about a missing person later found dead in their home.

In another, relating to a sexual assault on a child, a call handler advised the person phoning to attend a police station, but did not create an incident in the system, establish a location for where the crime took place or take a description of the alleged attacker.

Thankfully, in most of the incidents recorded in the three month period from 1 November last year, the mistakes did not cause undue problems either for the callers or for any resulting police investigation into the incident.

But in some cases, that was a lucky escape.

Other incidents logged by the force showed serious flaws in the human face of the people on the other end of the phone.

One call handler was described as having “lack of patience and questionable communication skills” - surely vital characteristics for the job. Although the incident did not result in a dangerous outcome on this particular occasion, these are worrying qualities in someone whose position requires them to deal with members of the public who are often, at the time of calling, vulnerable and fragile.

Some of the more than 40 incidents flagged in the three months period related to officers being sent to the wrong addresses, or mix-ups with postcodes.

This comes just months after Scotland’s police call handlers were moved from regional centres to a new National Virtual Service Centre – which spans Govan in Glasgow, Bilston Glen in Edinburgh and Motherwell – and a new area control room in Dundee.

However, we must also remember what the Police Scotland call handlers did well. In three cases, call handlers were praised for the way they dealt with a difficult incident - including one involving a suicidal man with a weapon, who was successfully brought to safety.

Indeed, of 47 notable incident reports, three were recognised as good practice; four as an opportunity for operational learning and the rest put down to individual human error.

What is encouraging is that Police Scotland does track these incidents - and any “near misses” to ensure that call handlers are accountable for their actions.

By doing so, they can - and should continue to - ensure that they can improve their service and officers can do their utmost to assist people in their time of need.