Dealing with tens of thousands of 999 and 101 calls a week, the police call centre for the Lothians has its work cut out.
These highly-trained staff are dealing with life or death situations on a daily basis – and they need more people to who have what it takes to join them.
An ongoing restructure of police control centres under Police Scotland has prompted a recruitment drive for the east control centre based at Bilston, Loanhead.
On average, staff at the complex deal with 20,000 non-emergency 101 calls a week, and 3200 emergency 999 calls in the same period, as well as hundreds of e-mails and texts.
Around 250 staff handle police reports across the whole of the east of Scotland, from Tyndrum in Stirlingshire to Newcastleton in the Borders and covering Lothian and Borders, Fife and Forth Valley.
Dealing with everything from murders to mountain rescues, the team need to stay calm under pressure and think on the spot.
Recent investment in innovative technology has improved the service, and the east service advisers work alongside their west colleagues to deal with overflow calls when there are busy periods in one area.
Chief Inspector Gordon McCreadie, who oversees the east area control room, said new computer systems were welcome, but the key was getting the right staff to answer calls.
He said: “We need them to be innovative, alert and interested in delivering a service to the public.”
Applicants need to have a range of skills, including a calm nature, multi-tasking abilities and computer literacy, but people from all walks of life are being encouraged, with some using it as a possible path into a career as a police officer.
Police Scotland has not given a set number of positions it needs to fill, as it depends on the demand for part-time and full-time positions.
A visit to the vast communications hall at Bilston is eye-opening – it is a hive of activity, split into several sections.
Service advisers in the service centre are the first responders for all 101 or 999 calls, before the details of the incidents are handed to the police area control section across the hall.
Speed and attention is key – they are under pressure to get all the background information officers on the ground need.
New technology recognises when the callers have dialled 999 before, and also highlights whether there have been additional issues in the past, including domestic incidents or criminal history elsewhere on the street. This all helps to prepare the officers for what they could find at the scene.
The incidents are then passed to the area control team, which is a mix of experienced police officers and civilian staff, and graded in order of importance, with one the most serious, and five requiring no police action.
The teams, split into the different east divisions, use specialist maps to pinpoint the location of the closest police unit before dispatching them according to priority. The detailed maps also contain information about where other police resources are, such as the helicopter or a dog unit.
They can also access city council CCTV cameras to be able to see what is going on at the scene.
Yesterday, a controller came across CCTV footage which showed a man collapsing outside St Mary’s Cathedral at Picardy Place in the Capital.
He immediately instructed one of his colleagues to contact an ambulance to get to the scene as soon as possible.
The area control room also has three “child rescue desks” which help share the burden of calls if there is a missing child anywhere in the UK.
Officers handled calls for the April Jones investigation in Wales, and also the Mikaeel Kular case in Edinburgh.
Upstairs from the main communications hall is the east overview centre, which oversees intelligence, major incidents and pursuits, and decides when to deploy armed officers.
There is also a public assistance desk, where police officers offer specialist advice to callers to help reduce the demand on front-line policing.
Service advisers have diverse backgrounds, and the age range is also vast – something that Police Scotland sees as an asset, as people have different skills and interests.
Anyone who thinks they may be interested in a position in the control room is urged to go to an open day on Sunday to find out more.
East service centre manager Laura Henderson said: “You need to be IT literate. There’s a test on computer ability – quality and speed, taking calls and inputting into the system at the same time so the area control team are getting it as a quickly as they can. The training programme lasts between eight and 12 weeks. Within six months they would be expected to be fully competent.”
She added: “The vetting process is quite lengthy and you find you lose a lot of applicants at the vetting stage. There will be a typing test set up on Sunday, and people can discuss the vetting process with staff.”
The service advisers have all dealt with a range of harrowing calls – some of which do not come to a happy ending.
Team leader Brenda McKissock, 43, said: “I’ve worked for the police for 22 years, and sometimes the calls still get me, especially if there’s a domestic incident and you can hear children in the background.
“But we are trained to focus on extracting the information from the caller.”
She said she was proud of a staff member who managed to save the life of a woman who had taken an overdose and lost consciousness while on a 999 call. The adviser spoke to the woman’s six-year-old son, and calmed him down so he could give their home address and other vital details to get the emergency services there.
Ms McKissock added: “It’s a fantastic job. No other job could match it. It’s the sense of satisfaction that you get from a job well done.”
Counselling and other support is provided to advisers who have had to deal with particularly difficult calls. The team also regularly links up with other agencies, including charities such as the Samaritans, to ensure they are giving the right support to callers.
Major restructure has had ‘challenges’
The recruitment drive has been prompted by plans to close five control rooms, including in Stirling and Glenrothes.
Calls from those areas are now dealt with at Bilston, and some advisers from the mothballed sites were retained on a temporary basis to help plug the gap.
Superintendent Linda Ormiston, who oversees the Bilston operation, said there had been a “number of challenges”. She acknowledged that there had been criticism around the 101 non-emergency number, but insisted that the situation was improving.
She said there were “huge benefits” to new technology. She said: “Performance is back on track. We know that the experience of the service has far improved.”
Last week, 91 per cent of 101 calls in east division were answered within 40 seconds, while the same percentage of 999 calls were answered within ten seconds.
A taste of life as a service adviser
An open day will be held at the service centre at Bilston Glen Industrial Estate, Loanhead, on Sunday. The force is looking for both full and part-time service advisers to help bolster its team.
There are still spaces available for the event, which aims to give prospective applicants an insight into how the 24/7 operation works.
Staff will be on hand to answer any questions, and visitors will be given advice on the selection process.
Sessions will run on Sunday at 10am, 11.30am, 1pm, 2.30pm, and 4pm, and people must register to attend. To do so, e-mail your name and address to PoliceRecruiting UnitGlasgow@scotland.pnn.police.uk with your preferred time.
The salary has been advertised as £17,706-£18,954 plus a shift allowance.
Handling 999 calls ‘an adrenaline rush’
James Gillies, who opted for a career change after working for the Post Office for 27 years, said he loves the variety of the role.
The 54-year-old, who has worked as a service adviser at Bilston for seven years, said: “It’s not what you would call a routine, 9-to-5 job – it varies every day, right through the year.
“You never know what you’re coming in to. It can be something humorous, something really heartfelt and touching, but at the end of the day there’s a lot of job satisfaction to it as well.”
Mr Gillies, from Bonnyrigg, described the calls as like “Russian roulette”, ranging from harrowing police incidents to minor complaints.
He said he once answered a 999 call from a woman who had met a man after speaking to him online, but felt unsafe after going with him to a remote house.
“I used the training to establish where that person was, you get the resources to that location, to make that person feel safe,” he said. “Essentially that’s what the job is – it’s keeping people safe. Life experience, good or bad, it all helps. We work about six people around a desk, so you’re never on your own. The support is great.”
The team also have to deal with a high volume of calls which should never have been directed at police. Mr Gillies said: “I had a treble nine call from someone asking, ‘Is the tea dance on at Portobello today?’. It can be absolutely anything, but you never know. It’s like Russian roulette.”
He said the “adrenaline rush” of making sure an urgent 999 call is handled effectively was part of what makes the role so satisfying, adding: “It’s all about gathering the right information. A shift can fly in.”