Calls burden puts extra stress on relations between Yorkshire police forces

Atlas Court in Sheffield, which has been hit by regular IT problems

Atlas Court in Sheffield, which has been hit by regular IT problems

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An internal review has warned of mounting pressures in the relationship between two of Yorkshire’s police forces amid IT problems that have blighted the response to calls from the public.

South Yorkshire Police’s Atlas Court communications centre in Sheffield, which handles emergency 999 calls and non-emergency 101 calls, has been hit by delays, meaning the force has had to turn to neighbouring West Yorkshire to help it cope with demand.

South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings at the press conference to announce the interim chief constable of South Yorkshire as David Jones. Picture: Andrew Roe

South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings at the press conference to announce the interim chief constable of South Yorkshire as David Jones. Picture: Andrew Roe

This summer, South Yorkshire’s police commissioner admitted the county’s 101 telephone system was inadequate for people wanting to report crime after it emerged that callers to the county’s police force were being left waiting up to 40 minutes to get an answer.

An internal review into the IT problems that caused the delays South Yorkshire Police has been suffering since March said they “appeared to stem from the application of an enforced software upgrade applied in that month”.

The report said the status and condition of the information services system meant solving the problem was “extremely disruptive for the operation and performance of the Atlas Court service”.

It added that the problems had been “stressful in terms of the force’s relationship with West Yorkshire Police who have often been called upon to take incoming calls for South Yorkshire and accordingly affecting their own call handling performance”.

The existing system is 15 years old and is not fit for purpose due to a lack of capital investment in past years. It has failed on occasions and we have used West Yorkshire as a fall-back.

Dr Alan Billings

West Yorkshire Police revealed this month that it is drafting in dozens of new staff to deal with an upsurge in emergency and non-emergency calls, and has been receiving more than 1,000 extra 999 calls compared to the same period last year, with no sign of the demand falling.

Yorkshire’s biggest force has also admitted that it does not have the resources to properly investigate day-to-day crimes because it is spending so much time dealing with an ever-growing number of complex cases.

The report said bosses were planning to completely replace the “existing call handling infrastructure and software environment” serving both South Yorkshire Police and Humberside Police, as the neighbouring forces share information and communications technology functions.

The procurement process has taken place but the supplier has told police the earliest the new system can be in place is June next year, meaning the existing infrastructure will remain in place until then.

An interim solution, known as Call Director, will be used for the next nine months, but the report suggested that the “age and relative fragility” of the overall system would mean it would remain at risk of grinding to a halt in the intervening period.

It said: “The history of incidents occurring since the March 2015 upgrade strongly indicates the capricious nature of the underlying faults and the apparent initial unconnected logic of the affected or source components.

“This presents a potentially high level of uncertainty about how any future incidents may be triggered which can be negatively coupled with the lack of a complete comprehension of the overall configuration.”

The report, which was written in July but only made public this week, concluded: “Our opinion is that there is nothing further that can be reasonably or cost-effectively done to significantly improve the reliability and stability of the overall Atlas Court environment and without creating potential additional problems and operational disruptions.”

It added: “Both the printed media and regional television programmes have recently featured unfavourable coverage of the delays in answering calls across the whole of Yorkshire but with some specific focus on the performance of South Yorkshire.

“When viewed against the wider platform of notable negative media coverage for the force, being able to deal effectively and efficiently with incoming calls from members of the public will likely remain a significant image and reputation risk for the force so long as the current call handling environment is in use.

“Although the level of disruptive incidents has latterly subsided from its previous peak and some corrective action has been taken to address some technical and network issues, there is still an undercurrent of problems and operational disruptions, for example in relation to incoming calls being dropped.

“Any continuing uncertainty about the future stability of the technology and systems could potentially further erode user and management confidence during the interim period.”

South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings said: “The report is one way I hold the force to account publicly.

“I have been concerned about the 101 service since I became commissioner. I did two things: first commit the funding for a new IS system and second ask for a review of all the ways in which the public contact the force. This report is one part of this review.

“The existing system is 15 years old and is not fit for purpose due to a lack of capital investment in past years. It has failed on occasions and we have used West Yorkshire as a fall-back. But the new, state of the art system will not be ready until June 2017.

“At the Public Accountability Board on Tuesday, therefore, I shall be asking the force what steps they will be taking to ensure that there is an adequate service between now and June next year.”

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