Cops on the line

The emergency services have to respond to phone calls swiftly and accurately. Karl Cushing finds out how Thames Valley Police...

The emergency services have to respond to phone calls swiftly and accurately. Karl Cushing finds out how Thames Valley Police handles five million calls a year

Any organisation that fields a lot of phone calls needs to make sure that the call handling process is as efficient as possible, but when lives are at stake that need is paramount.

Every call to the emergency services is potentially critical and ensuring that those calls get through and are dealt with quickly and effectively is crucial. In recent years the number of calls handled by the emergency services in the UK has risen dramatically, putting a strain on resources. The Thames Valley Police force was not alone in feeling the pinch, but it was a little more responsive than most when it came to looking for a solution.

The Thames Valley Police force is the largest non-metropolitan police force in the country, covering 2,200 square miles of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire and serving a population of 2.1 million. In recent years, the number of calls the force receives has risen sharply to about five million a year, including two million general calls, two million direct-dial calls to specific staff members and about 400,000 999 calls.

"It is very difficult for us to rationalise our calls," says sergeant Gerry Causer, Thames Valley Police force's senior voice analyst, who explains that the number of 999 calls alone has doubled in the past five years.

Causer explains that handling calls effectively is central to effective policing and maintaining public confidence. "If you don't have their confidence, they won't give you information," he says. "Keeping that confidence is a constant battle." But he also points out that expecting to have someone in every police station to handle calls as well as having a bobby on the beat is no longer realistic.

Thames Valley Police realised that to keep on top of its growing intake of calls and improve the level of customer service it needed to overhaul its entire call handling system.

It began by analysing call traffic and building up a clear picture of its voice network using software from contact centre and computer telephony software firm Datapulse CTI. This helped to identify bottlenecks and under-used areas on the network - information that could then be used to help improve the force's second-stage call handling ability.

Working in conjunction with staff from Datapulse, Causer's team worked on turning the statistics into a more coherent format using Microsoft Excel macros to help filter out unimportant data. This also helped them to present the figures in a graphical format. The goal was to create a detailed breakdown of the calls and produce reports on the most important areas, such as 999 calls.

The reports on 999 calls are e-mailed directly to the relevant departments on a daily basis. Other reports, which are compiled for the operator centres and customer service managers, are produced on a weekly and monthly basis. The weekly reports are made available to all internal staff via a public folder on Microsoft Outlook.

By adding the weekly figures to the yearly total and analysing this data, the force can identify trends and patterns. On the basis of these figures, it can decide whether to change shift patterns or working practices by identifying where and when police could be used more effectively.

Although call patterns naturally fluctuate and can be affected by extraneous factors such as weather, Causer believes that building this information over a period of time will help Thames Valley Police deal more effectively with its 999 calls. "You can keep your eye on the ball and keep to the targets," he says.

Using this information, Causer recommended that the best way to deal with the fluctuations would be to put all the calls into a common queue. And rather than increase the number of staff and operator centres to help deal with the increased demand, it was decided that the number of centres should be reduced from seven to two as it was felt that this structure would be more flexible and resilient.

Emergency calls are quickly screened off and non-urgent calls are dealt with by operators at the two centres, which are open 17 hours a day, seven days a week. Thames Valley Police claims that 85% of routine calls are answered within 20 seconds and 90% of emergency calls within 10 seconds. But as Causer explains, speed is not always the main priority.

The force also uses Datapulse software to monitor the performance of its switchboard staff. If it is felt that calls are being dealt with too quickly a supervisor will have a word with the operator. "Speed is fine, accuracy is final," says Causer. "It is important to get the call right."

All calls are put in a queue and greeted by a message before being dealt with by an operator who receives call-related information on a screen on the switchboard. The operator can see where or who the person is intending to call and can put them through by scanning the database for the location and pressing "dial now" on the screen. The call is logged and stored in the Datapulse system and the caller is transferred automatically. The caller is effectively "fooled" into thinking that the call is being dealt with somewhere else.

The implementation process has not all been plain sailing. Causer explains that Thames Valley Police took the system on board just as it was changing its telephone network and integrating the whole system involved "a very steep learning curve". He explains that the force was wary of making the tail wag the dog, but realised it had to make changes to get the benefits.

The relationship with Datapulse started when BT won the tender to manage Thames Valley Police's telephone network four years ago. Datapulse effectively came as part of the package. But the force was already familiar with the company and its products and "the decision came fairly naturally", says Causer.

Four years on, the system is still evolving. "We wouldn't say we have got it perfect yet," says Causer, but it has had a major impact. "It is one of those crucial support functions that if you didn't have it you would notice, but you don't notice it when it is there," he says.

Call handling system
The number of calls being made to Thames Valley Police force was growing rapidly and making sure that important 999 calls were dealt with quickly and effectively was becoming increasingly difficult

Solution: It overhauled its second-stage call handling system using software from contact centre and computer telephony software firm Datapulse CTI.

  • Calls are dealt with more effectively

  • The number of operating centres has been reduced from seven to two, resulting in cost savings

  • Police officers have been freed up for more important tasks

  • Staff receive more information about calls.

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