As the Senior Contact Manager for West Yorkshire Police, Tom Donohoe has heard every kind of call imaginable - the good, the bad and the ugly. We caught up with Tom just after the Christmas and New Year period - which is notoriously busy for emergency control rooms like his - to talk about his role in contact, increasing demand and the changing landscape - driven by technology.
Demand on the control room - have you noticed an increasing trend?
Starting off the conversation, Tom explains that demand is increasing every year.
For West Yorkshire Police alone, 999 calls have increased by 15% year on year, which themselves were up by 15% on the year before. 101 numbers are around the same, but most surprisingly, online contacts are up from 6,500 per month to 15,500 in 2018. What’s more, in addition to this, there are further contacts made via some self-service options and signposting from the force’s website - taking the total interactions even higher.
Tom puts some context around those figures, stating that, “If we take those figures and then overlay the complexities of priority, with an increase in calls relating to mental health issues, more missing persons, more calls that are not strictly police matters, you can start to build a picture of what demand actually looks like. And there’s is no simple, one answer that can help reduce the increasing stresses and factors. But we are the service of last resort on many occasions, and like our colleagues across the emergency services, we don’t like to say ‘no’ to anyone in need”.
As another example of increasing demand, Tom explained that New Year’s Eve is traditionally one of the busiest nights for most police forces, with high demand compacted often into the last 12hrs of the day - from 7pm until 7am on the morning of New Year’s Day. In the 2018 to 2019 celebration, West Yorkshire Police handled over 2000 999 calls, around 400 more than last year. None of these were abandoned and there was an average queue time of 5 seconds.
The changing landscape of the control room: humans vs bots?
With increasing demand, a hot-topic in the contact centre sector, there’s more focus on how technology can help alleviate these pressures.
When talking about the control room and what’s changed over recent years, Tom explained, “There has been a proliferation of contact centres springing up around the world over the last decade; they have been described as one of the few growth areas in business - useful in economising their operations. What’s more, there’s a huge conversation happening about how artificial intelligence (AI) or bots will revolutionise how people interact with organisations, particularly as those companies strive to reduce costs and increase efficiency”.
He continues, “But I wonder how an electronic bot would respond to what typically passes through an emergency contact centre on a daily basis?”
Bots in an emergency control room - can they work?
Tom explains what makes the emergency contact centre unique and how that can be a challenge for automating these operations: and that is the breadth of situations they deal with on a minute-by-minute basis.
“One call about a vulnerable missing person bleeds into one about a pizza delivery being late and then back into a call about domestic violence, and all the time the call handler is having to remain calm and professional when perhaps dealing with someone who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or who is ringing in their darkest hour, or who has mental health issues? There’s then the responsibility of juggling available police units and making the decision as to which is the most important, as well as being mindful of officer protection”.
But it’s not just the variety of inbound requests to the control room that could be a challenge for a technology-led response - it’s also about empathy and understanding.
“Our staff are resilient. Recently, we had a call handler who stayed on the phone with a suicidal male for an hour and half to get him help, throughout which she showed incredible compassion in dealing with this person. My fear is that particular story would have had a different ending if it wasn’t for the human interaction - would a bot be able to show the same empathy and understanding? I fear not”.
“In the heart of the contact centre we deal with the worst of the worst - yet our call handlers hold their nerve. Technology, without doubt, has a massive part to play in responding to the public demand but for me, it will always enhance the contact with a human - not replace it”.
How is technology working alongside the human interaction to improve the function?
Tom tells us about a useful application that blends the human interaction with support from the latest technological advances. He tells us about ‘what3words’, which would be useful in the scenario where a call handler takes a 999 call from someone who is lost. This technology helps identify their precise location.
‘What3words’ is a really simple way to talk about location. In a nutshell, they’ve divided the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares and assigned each one a unique three word address. It means anyone can accurately find any location and share it.
In the emergency contact situation, the call handler could ask the caller to download the ‘what3words’ app onto their phone in real-time; the caller would then use the app to identify their location - as described above - and tell the operator ‘what3words’ square they are in. The operator would then use this information as a precise location marker of three meters to identify where the individual is and send help immediately.
Tom adds, “And we can’t forget to mention the role and advances of social media. It’s becoming a popular method of contact by the public reporting crimes and is heavily used by some services to educate on the use of the 999 helpline. We need the best tech we can afford to get the most out of our skilled workforce, and we need to use all the channels we have at our disposal to get key messages out to the public and help us to manage demand, which is why all services are looking at the ‘art of the possible’ in terms of what is available to assist not only in public contact, but policing generally.”
Tom concludes, “I would hope that we never lose the human touch in dealing with humans in trouble, but we must continue to use technology to make better decisions, risk-manage situations more effectively and most of all - provide the best possible service to the public. I am very proud of the people I work with, who actually modestly regard what they do as ‘just doing their jobs’, when in fact - what we do in an emergency contact centre is much, much more”.
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