A woman's 111 call as a father and daughter were nearly drowning was unanswered twice at the Wellington communications centre - before the third call was answered in Christchurch by a call-taker who asked where Plimmerton was.

Marilyn Scannell says she is appalled by the police's handling of her emergency call, which lasted five and a half minutes.

With police headquarters awaiting the results of an external review of the 111 system, Mrs Scannell said the system's problems were obvious - understaffing.

She was at her beach house with friends on January 14 when she saw a distressed man and his daughter, aged about 6, signalling for help in the water about 5.50pm. The girl had been playing on an inflatable shark and when she got into trouble her father went to help.

The pair were "fighting for their lives" as the tide pulled them toward the channel leading to Porirua Harbour. Mrs Scannell grabbed a friend's cellphone and rang 018 seeking the number for the Kapiti coastguard, but the office was closed and a message said to call 111. She rang 111 and the Telecom operator tried to place her call to the communications centre in Wellington.

"The first two call centres that [the Telecom operator] tried did not answer the phone," she said in a letter to Police Commissioner Rob Robinson. "On the third try to a call centre, I was put through to a police operator who was based in Christchurch and did not know where Plimmerton was."

Mrs Scannell said phone records confirmed her emergency call lasted five and a half minutes.

"This was not good enough. People die in that time."

With police not answering, her husband decided to kayak out to the pair. He rescued the girl and two firefighters went to the father's aid.

Mrs Scannell's complaint said she asked the Christchurch call-taker about the delays and why communications centre staff had not raised the under-resourcing with management.

"He said that they had but no one listened to them and it was up to the public to make complaints."

Her complaint was forwarded to the external review panel for consideration.