Emergency Services Call Handling: priority conflicts and poor investment

Emergency Services 2
Emergency Services

With all the advances in telecommunications and call centre technology, it’s suggested that we all get a far better service from our Emergency Services today but do we? Process is now supposedly based upon actual as opposed to perceived need. But who or what decides about the priority of the initial request for service?

Many senior managers within our emergency services say; incident grading and medical triage, now usually at point of contact (i.e. via telephone) is the way forward. It’s considered the best way in which to manage our expensive and limited public resources effectively.

Two-tier priority system to be introduced – Calls to the emergency services requesting an ambulance are to be prioritised for the first time in an attempt to save lives, it was announced yesterday…(independent.co.uk)

But often the priorities in call-handling process has more to do with cost than it has to do with saving lives, or even the quality of service delivery; today cold hard cash is the driver, that and the self-promotion of those responsible for the management of the process.

Obviously cost implications are always important, now more so than ever before however; is it right to penny pinch at the front end of our emergency services whilst gallons of cash still disappears down the plughole of incompetent administration and bureaucracy on a daily basis?

The modern-day prevailing analogy, “you can train a monkey to answer a phone” is used too often and is actually flawed, in so many ways. It’s not working and the correct balance of human and technical resources are out of kilter with each other. In addition to that variable, too little consideration is being given to the recruitment process, correct levels of training and subsequent retention of suitably motivated and skilled individuals to perform the call-handling task.

Hundreds of thousands of phone calls to the new police non-emergency 101 number are going unanswered, figures from forces in England and Wales suggest…(bbc.co.uk)

Having devoted a large part of the latter years of my police career to the command and control aspect of policing, I’m well versed in the call handling process, the incident logging systems and the technicalities of computer aided dispatch within the emergency services. Much of the so-called ‘news’ on the subject is generally seen by the media as just another police/government bashing opportunity. The chance to make another story of ‘concern’ under yet another emotive and/or shocking headline.

While the government insists that crime is falling, despite the significant cuts to the police service, the high volume of unanswered calls suggests that many offences may be going unrecorded…(Steve White – Police Federation)

The impact upon the quality of service currently delivered is hardly considered in reality. Despite the much hailed removal of government performance targets in policing, the service we get from our police (and other emergency services) is more about figures and percentages, rather than people. And don’t forget, when it transpires the organisation is lacking in some way, that factor is usually disguised with some cleverly manipulated statistics or PR hype.

Staff numbers have been (and are still being) cut at alarming rates, despite increases in workload and public demand. Individual knowledge, experience and skills have been hemorrhaging through the arteries of redundancy for some time now and training is either poor or almost non-existent in many areas.

We’re at the point whereby our emergency services rely almost solely upon the technical aspects of the call handling process and fail to devote sufficient time and effort into the human resources variable. Simply providing call-handlers with scripts to work from, along with masses of database information and instructions to query, may help hit call answering targets however; it doesn’t actually bode well for ‘efficient’ call-handling in the future and it certainly doesn’t have much impact on the service delivered after the call answering target has been achieved..

We should all be mindful that the vast majority of police call handling centres are actually achieving the targets they have been set; 96% of all calls to 101 answered within target (eg 30 secs). That ain’t bad going under anyones standards. 

But today, mostly due to national austerity measures, many public sector processes are now all about doing things on the cheap. Yes the cost is and always has been important factor but quality of a product and good service doesn’t usually come cheap!

What we all need to decide is; are we happy to allow our emergency services (mostly because of political interference, self-interested management and past waste) to continue delivering lower levels of inferior service?

Given our financial investment, via our personal taxes for those services, I would like to think not. I know I expect better, don’t you?