On Monday the 12th of September 2011 Cambridgeshire Police’s Deputy Chief Constable, John Feavyour, described the force’s telephone answering system as “fragile” and said call answering performance had “fallen through the floor” on a number of occasions over the last year. He said the latest statistics showed particularly poor performance in answering non-emergency calls.
Mr Feavyour was presenting a report to a meeting of the scrutiny committee of Cambridgeshire’s Police Authority which I was observing.
The most recent statistics, for July 2011, show that only around half of calls to the non-emergency number (when its not routed to the force control room) have been getting answered within the (30 second) target time.
As well as the fraction of calls not being answered within the target times; another worrying statistic revealed is the number of calls being abandoned – callers hanging up before their call gets answered. It appears that in a typical month around 5% of non-emergency calls routed to the force control room were being abandoned. In each of June and July 2011(the most recent months for which data was provided) 10,000 of the 60,000 non-emergency calls directed to the Police Service Centre each month were abandoned before they were answered.
As would be hoped and expected the performance of the 999 system is better, but the statistics released show the force is meeting its (10 second) target for answering 999 calls in less than the 90% of cases which it aspires to. The measure dipped to 85% in the summer of 2010 and is currently at just below 90% and the previous trend was performance falling.
The dips in performance of the 999 system appear to have occurred at the same times as the problems with the non-emergency system.
Members of the committee were presented with graphs visualising data on Cambridgeshire Police’s Call handling statistics. Neither the committee, or the public, have been provided with the raw data which would allow investigation of things like how many 999 calls were answered within a longer period, of say, 20 seconds. Without such data I don’t really know how worried I should be about the ~10% or so of 999 calls which are not being answered within the 10 second target; if all were picked up within say 20 seconds I’d be reassured and fairly happy; as it is I’m left wondering.
Graphs were presented relating to performance in respect of :
- 999 Calls
- Public calls answered by the Force Control Room (FRC)
- Public calls answered by the Police Service Centre (PSC)
As I understand it calls to the non-emergency number are generally answered by the Police Service Centre but can be passed onto the Force Control Room. (I’ve personally called the non-emergency number and it’s very confusing having just called the police, for them to say “we’ll put you through to the police”). A report to the Police Authority from 2007 stated that the force control room handled non-emergency calls whenever the Police Service Centre is either closed or experiencing extreme demand. Later reports have stated the Police Service centre [also] takes all calls coming into the force between 6-7am and midnight-1am. I don’t know if that is still the case.
It is hard to work with and comment on the graphs as the definitions of terms on them such as “PSC Grade of Service” were not provided.
When non-emergency calls are transferred to the force control room, a fraction of them somewhere between around 5-10% go unanswered; there have been months where this statistic has gone through bad patches. It is notable that in April and May 2008 there were over 2000 emergency calls a month being answered (or not!) by the Force Control Room whereas by the end of 2010 and into the start of 2011 this dropped by half to around 1000 per month. The latest data shows this running at around 1500 per month.
Clearly there are many questions raised by the data such as why changes in call volume like this have occurred; the most striking is the huge and unexplained increase in the number of public calls which were routed to the Police Service Centre in June and July 2011, up to over 50,000 from a usual level of around 20,000. I first thought it was possible, even probable, that this tripling of the call volume would be one cause of the fall off in performance, but that was not the explanation put forward by Mr Feavyour. Without any explanation for the increase I questioned if the statistics reflected reality; but then realised what may be occurring is those people who have not got through are trying again, so increasing the total number of calls. As even then the figures don’t appear to fully make sense I wonder if there is a fraction of calls being dropped before they are even logged, if the system is becoming overwhelmed.
Causes of the Problems And Authority Members’ Response
Deputy Chief Constable Feavyour explained the problems occurred because of staff absences, holidays etc. He said the force had addressed problems after one dip in performance (presumably that around July 2010) but another problem has been occurring since April 2011, though with lesser impact on 999 and but much worse on the non-emergency calls. He assured the committee that the most up-to-date data he had seen was much better than that shown in the graphs in the report (public officials always say that when being held to account!). Mr Feavyour said he was personally not happy with the force’s performance in this key area being so susceptible to minor staffing issues and gave an assurance that he was looking into it.
None of the members of the police authority committee expressed any concern, or raised any question, in relation to the call handling statistics. They all appeared very happy with what Mr Feavyour had said and the assurances he had given.
The only one to make any related comment was Cambridgeshire County Councillor John Clark (March West, Conservative) who said he’d been given “a very rough time” at a neighbourhood panel meeting from people who’d not been able to get through on the non-emergency number; he admitted he hadn’t had a clue what to say in response and didn’t even know the non-emergency number himself at that point (he’s now learnt 101, but is struggling with 0
8345 4564564). Presumably if the residents of March West care about things like getting though to the police when they call they’ll boot him out of office at the next election – at least though he said something and after a fashion re-presented some concerns raised by those who elected him to the other committee. The other members, some elected, some not, said nothing.
Historial figures show that the 999 “Grade of Service” has been up to ~98% for long periods of 2007, though has been poor before, hitting a low of 80% in August 2005.
A call handling performance report by the police for September 2008 reported the same issues as appear to be occurring now: a loss of staff from the Police Service Centre leading to significant performance impacts.
The latest performance statistics on call handling available on the force website are from September 2009.
Failure to Publish Papers
The meeting papers published prior to the meeting contained two links for the item under which the call handling performance statistics were presented:
Both links were to the same document. It appears there was an intent to publish both the “pack” of performance data as well as the overview report, but an administrative mistake had been made and only the covering report, which didn’t mention the phone system at all, had been published. I understand that mistakes happen, but note that the running costs for the Police Authority’s administration are around a million pounds a year, and the clerk (grandly titled the Chief Executive) gets paid around £100,000/year. In that context the frequency of failures like this is less tolerable to me.
I also note that it was information of obvious public and press interest which was omitted from the published meeting papers.