SOUTH Yorkshire’s police commissioner has admitted the 101 telephone system is inadequate for people wanting to report crime after it emerged that callers to the county’s police force can be left waiting 40 minutes to get an answer.
Dr Alan Billings has now ordered a full review of the way South Yorkshire Police communicates with the public, saying that problems with technology and staffing levels at the force’s Atlas Court communications centre in Sheffield, meaning technology will have to be improved.
But Dr Billings said Atlas Court accounted for around a quarter of the force’s civilian staff and protecting that element of the workforce from cuts meant that savings would have to be found elsewhere.
He said: “I am now hearing all across South Yorkshire. We realise that there is a problem.
“I am commissioning a review into how people communicate with the police. Almost the whole communication is through 101.
“I am saying, are there other ways in this modern age in which we can communicate so we spread the load.
“If it is concentrated on 101, there will be problems. We have to upgrade technology. You get glitches and hitches. There must be other ways in which communication can happen, otherwise there will be trouble.
“To protect the workforce at Atlas Court you have to go somewhere else and there are not that many places to go to.
“We understand that 101 is not working. People have waited 25 and 40 minutes. There are the ones who won’t wait.”
Barnsley Coun Doug Burkinshaw, who represent the Central ward, told Dr Billings: “People have lost complete confidence in 101. You will not get people ringing up and waiting for 25 minutes.
“People ring in and ask for a crime number, to be told to go to a police station.
“If you want co-operation, you have to show things are happening,” he said.
“Unless you sort out 101 you will not get the confidence of people.”
The same complaints were made at every meeting he attended, said Coun Birkinshaw, who was speaking at a public meeting to address anti social behaviour issues in the Sheffield Road area.
He also suggested difficulties in reporting crime was one reason for recent falls in crime statistics: “Crime statistics are falling but it is not because crime is falling. It is because people can’t report it,” he said.
South Yorkshire Police Insp Julie Mitchell said: “I am well aware of issues with 101. There is a staffing issue with our call handling centre and some telephony issues.
“I have heard some people are waiting for 25 minutes and they lose faith and give up.
“I don’t know what the solution to that is until processes are put in place which are beyond my control.”
South Yorkshire Police Head of Communications Tracy Potter blamed the problems on an IT upgrade in March, which “resulted in some technical difficulties and we are working hard with the supplier to address these. “
However be reassured we continue to prioritise emergency calls.
“We have a number of vacancies in the contact centre which we are recruiting to. In recent months we have seen our call volumes increase and as we enter the summer period it traditionally is one of the busiest periods of demand for the force.
“As part of our ongoing work to improve access to our services and assist people who need help from the police we have developed a website called when to call 101 and this is accessible 24 hours a day through the South Yorkshire Police website.
“Please be reassured we are working hard to rectify the issues in order the call times reduce and return to what has been previously an exceptional service for members of the community.”
The Atlas Court communications centre was opened more than a decade ago to replace old-fashioned local control rooms, with the staff made up of civilians rather than police officers. It experienced similar early problems, blamed partly on teething troubles with the then new technology, but senior officers also had to increase staffing to cope with demand.
Since then there have been other changes, including the introduction of the 101 telephone number as the only way to contact police for non-emergency calls.