Matthew Theunissen

Matthew Theunissen is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Police hire outsiders to answer emergency calls

Superintendent Dave Trappitt confirmed yesterday that six staff from IT firm Datacom began work on Wednesday, answering urgent *555 traffic calls. Photo / NZ Herald
Superintendent Dave Trappitt confirmed yesterday that six staff from IT firm Datacom began work on Wednesday, answering urgent *555 traffic calls. Photo / NZ Herald

Police bosses have been forced to call in staff from a private IT firm to help answer soaring numbers of emergency calls.

They had cut the numbers of 111 and *555 communication centre staff by "natural attrition" - but up to 18 are now being hired back on casual contracts to deal with an extra 35,000 calls already logged this year, and a further upsurge expected to swamp police over summer.

The Police Association warns officers on the beat are paying the price for bureaucratic cost-cutting, and mistakes will be made as a result.

The police communications centre famously botched its response to distressed calls from student Iraena Asher, refusing to send a police car to Piha and instead sending a taxi, to the wrong address. Asher disappeared, believed to have drowned.

Her father Michael is still grieving. He said yesterday: "She made three 111 calls and in the end she chucked her phone away because she thought in her mind, 'no one's going to help me'.

Why the hell didn't they send a police officer to Piha to investigate? Why didn't they?"

Police commissioned a review and made changes, but Michael Asher said he had remained sceptical that anything would change in the way emergency calls were handled, and the latest cost-cutting and outsourcing was evidence.

Iraena Asher called 111 thrice to no avail. She is believed to have drowned.
Iraena Asher called 111 thrice to no avail. She is believed to have drowned.

Superintendent Dave Trappitt confirmed yesterday that six staff from IT firm Datacom began work on Wednesday, answering urgent *555 traffic calls. They will work at the police northern communications centre for five months, to free up police to answer the more critical 111 calls.

The Datacom staff have received only three to five days of training. They will be dealing with calls of lower priority such as wandering stock, Trappitt said, and will be trained to recognise when they need to pass the call over to police staff. But some life-threatening emergencies are called in on the *555 line. "If they are unsure they ask the police supervisor," he said.

Police Association president Greg O'Connor said it was a clear indication the communications centres were not being adequately resourced since the police budget was frozen in 2010. "And at the moment there is some severe pressure on the comms centres, particularly at north comms in Auckland, to meet their targets," he said. Labour police spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said the outsourcing to private call-centre staff could become a very "slippery slope" as police struggled to deal with an inadequate budget.

"It's really worrying because how do you define what is an emergency and a non-emergency call? You'd want well-trained staff dealing with those situations because it's a distressing time.

"People expect that when they contact police through these channels they will reach someone who works for the police. If we start losing these services to private organisations, people will feel like they don't have police in their communities anymore."

A Telecom study this year found 17,000 calls made to the emergency 111 number were abandoned for reasons including misdials, hang-ups and the time taken to answer the call. The police target is for 85 per cent of calls to be answered within 15 seconds, but the study found 97 per cent of calls were answered within the 15 seconds.

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