Police are summoned through 999 more than 10 million times a year, and not always for the right reasons - hoax calls, trivial incidents and people sitting on their mobiles among them. These nuisances aside, new figures show many forces aren't coping too well with the rising demand.
By Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Online Magazine
The lady was clearly hysterical. What to do? She felt she needed some serious assistance. So she dialled 999. After all, it was an emergency.
Her call was answered. The operator asked what the trouble was.
"It was basically a lady who had called up and requested police attendance because there was a spider in her bath," recalls the operator, a former civilian employee with the Metropolitan Police.
Police or plumber?
"This poor lady was obviously petrified, but we had to explain that the first response of the police probably wasn't what it deserved."
Spiders in the tub. A stain requiring a remover. Rats in the kitchen and taps that won't turn off. Those are the kind of "emergencies" police operators might find themselves handling - in between calls about assaults and car crashes and robberies, of course.
More than 2.2 million people dialled 999 in London alone over the past year. Of those, only about 500,000 were legitimate calls that required an emergency response, the Met says.
The rest ran the gamut from hoax calls, to people calling to report crime that didn't require an emergency response - a vandalised car or home break-in - to callers like the lady with the spider in the bath.
While stains, rodents and incessantly running water can all be quite troublesome, they're not really the sort of thing police want people ringing 999 for.
"It's for use when an immediate response is required," a Met spokesperson says. "Non-emergency calls are to go through to the local police station. You work on the premise that if crime is happening now, or if someone is in immediate danger, it's 999.
"People need to think. The person ... who said I can't get my tap off, clearly they need a plumber."
But how many people actually know the number of their local cop shop? And how many people, if faced with a ransacked house, will have the mental clarity to stop and think to themselves, "This does not require an emergency response, so I should not tie up 999 lines. Instead, I will look up the number of the station in the telephone book and dial them directly."
Lines are busy
Sometimes, when people do ring their stations directly, they have a hard time getting through so they turn to the 999 system.
Sir Keith Povey, head of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, believes police forces need to make sure their ordinary lines get picked up so emergency lines aren't clogged.
Operators deal with everything from stabbings to spiders
"A number of forces are struggling in dealing with ... both 999 calls and non-urgent calls," he said after releasing a report that ranked England and Wales' police services.
"My gut feeling is that the frustration of not being able to get through [on ordinary police phone numbers] leads to a rise in 999 calls."
Some people use 999 as directory inquiries. It is, after all, a free call; operators expecting a plea for assistance sometimes receive a simple request for the telephone number of the local nick.
There were reportedly seven million 999 calls in 1996. Home Office figures show that in 2001-02 more than 11 million 999 calls were made.
In 2002-03, that number declined by about a million. This year, however, the Met saw their 999 calls rise by about 80,000, an increase the spokesperson puts down mainly to mobile phones.
Mobiles a plague
"I think everyone's got a mobile, to be honest, and it's in their mindset that you dial 999," she says. "People are willing to help, they're willing to phone the police - which is great, it's what we do, we want them talking to us - but they need to be a bit more considerate about why they're phoning.
"On the one hand, it's very nice that people think if they ring us, they'll get an appropriate response. On the other, we do get a lot of calls that shouldn't be coming through."
Another issue is accidental calls from mobiles. In 2003, the Met received about 70,000 of those, which all required follow-up from officers to ensure that they were indeed mistakes - calls accidentally dialled from phones in purses or pockets.
HIGH CALL VOLUME
Metropolitan Police 2,216,596
West Midlands Police 617,531
Greater Manchester Police 582,243
Source: Home Office, 2002-03
One proposed solution to the 999 issue is a national, non-emergency number people can use to report minor crime, such as home break-ins or thefts from cars.
In the US, there is a 311 line to dial as an alternative to their emergency 911 number. In the UK, the number originally proposed was 888, but industry regulator Ofcom has said that won't work, as it would require changing all household and business numbers that begin with a double eight.
So police services are slogging through, hoping people use the system sensibly.
"I think that demonstrates how bizarre 999 calls can be," the operator says of his lady with the spider.
"I think things have definitely got better over the past few years. But there's still a lot of work to be done."
Do you feel silly about a 999 call you made? Are you an emergency services operator who deals with 999 calls? Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I recently called 999 to report that a car was broken down in the outside lane of the M40 and cars were swerving to miss it. I considered this 'an emergency' or at the least had potential to be. The operator did not agree and was quite abrupt in telling me. Next time I see something I will do like most others in this country and just go on with my business. We are developing a society where burglary, theft and danger on our roads are not serious enough for our police to bother about. Quite frankly I'm appalled.
I am 999 operator for my local police force. Out of the many calls that I take in a day I can honestly say that less than 50% of them are genuine emergencies. I always try to be polite to these callers and explain to them that even though them may think it is an emergency, it is not and tell them to call their local police station, and will usually give them the correct number if I have it to hand.
It amazes me however when I am met with the excuse for dialling 999 as "sorry, I know it is not an emergency but I had no credit left on my phone!" And, believe me this excuse happens all the time. Needless to say these people get told to go to a phone box or get some credit. In my opinion, we are not strict enough with these kind of callers. They should be fined every time they do something like that and maybe that would deter them.
I think what is needed is a programme of education and advertisement from the government to educate people in what the police deal with and what we don't, and also what is an emergency and what isn't. As well as informing people of the other agencies that deal with other problems. Only then can I see the police's call handling figures improving.
People abusing the 999 service? Well, that's what happens when you change the system so that people can no longer ring their local police station direct, and when they do get put through to the required station, as I was recently when trying to report the not inconsiderable and definitely time critical theft of a vehicle complete with name and address of the thief currently in the vehicle, you end up on hold for TWO HOURS, and when you finally get through you're met with a TOTAL lack of interest and left on hold again for 30 minutes until the line goes dead. Ring back after having wasted 3 hours trying to report a simple crime and failing and ask to be put though to someone senior, e.g. a chief constable or duty inspector, and you are told that that is not possible at all under any circumstances.
From now on I shall dial 999 for EVERYTHING. I doubt you will print this though.
Dave Null, UK
The police are there to help people in distress. Distress for one person might be run-of the mill for someone else. It is not for the authorities to determine what does or does not constitute distress or emergency. They are there to help people in need. If people perceive an emergency, then at least for them, a real emergency exists, and they should be assisted, not told to call another number or don't bother us.
I would have a little more sympathy for the police if they actually answered genuine emergency calls. I called the police in Bristol recently to report a burglary in progress (I could see several young men carrying my neighbour's motorcycle down his drive) and was told by the operator that it was "not considered to be an emergency". I was transferred to an electronic answer phone and invited to leave a message which would be "dealt with in the morning". Despite putting in a formal complaint I have never received an apology.
Kate Corwyn, Bristol
I'd feel lucky to have the police arrive to my home when its being vandalised by thugs, or when my neighbours are being abused by racist bullies. They never show in my area of Leeds, no matter how often you call. So please let me know which area I can move into that the old bill will show up for bath spiders, I wanna live there!
I think the American idea of a 311 number is a good one. If 888 isn't a possibility, how about something that fits into the existing system e.g.. 0800 999 999
I don't feel silly about anything but I do take issue with your statement that a "home break-in" is not an emergency. Most people would call this an emergency, particularly if they live alone and don't know if the burglars are still in the house.
If the local Police answered their telephone when the public phone them, they would not then need to call 999. A exercise by the MPA found that a number of police telephone calls were not answered and the call was ringing so long that in the end it was cut off!
Robin Hancock, England
A couple of years ago my partner and I were walking home from a night out. As we passed a local shop we heard a lot of banging and crashing and someone shouting "get on with it!". We were worried that we might be hearing a rather clumsy burglary. I phoned the police station when we got home. "Is it happening now?" the operator asked, and then promptly put me through to 999. In about 2 minutes, the shop was silently surrounded by 3 or 4 squad cars! It turned out that the occupants of the flat above the shop had been in the pub all day (watching an England match) and had lost their keys. What a shock they must have got! The police were very nice and said that it was exactly what we should have done, except that we should have called 999 rather than the local station. Perhaps a rare misuse of the numbers!
Thames Valley Police have on the side of all of their vehicles "fighting crime, disorder and fear" surely this makes calling them for a spider in the bath perfectly legitimate. Utilising the disorder part one could also presumably put in a call for them to come and tidy the house. They are victims of their own buzzwords.
Luke Mansfield, England
I used to be a 999 operator, and most of the calls were people's mobile going off in their bags or pockets. The rest were kids playing on the line. Very few were genuine 999 calls. I believe people who phone 999 for stupid things - e.g. a spider in the bath - should be fined. maybe then they would stop abusing the system. No wonder crime is rampant when the police are being distracted by these idiots.
You might be interested in this site: Somerset police periodically transcribe their most ridiculous 999 calls and put them online for everybody's entertainment. (See links on right.) This little lot (last updated Nov 03) includes "A female caller has dialled 999 to report an injured pigeon", "A male caller has dialled 999 to say that his wife has gone out without leaving any food to eat" and "A male caller has dialled 999 to complain about the lack of buses in Crow Lane."
Quin, Hanwell, London
I think what people are failing to realise is that unlike the police, we are not all experts in crime and what is an emergency and what isn't. To us, the thief who stole our mobile phone may be just around the next corner - or in the case of a break-in, we don't know what is vital evidence and what isn't (or from my personal experience, whether the burglar is still in the house). You can't expect people under a stressful situation to think rationally - surely that is the job of the people taking the calls to filter them for priority and appropriate response, since that's where the experience and level-headedness lies?
I'm not sure how I am supposed to react but when your house has been smashed up, doors and windows unable to be secured and the police uncontactable of course you will try an alternate number. Who do I call now that burglary is not considered a serious crime anymore? The local won't answer, 999 don't dispatch officers for burglaries. The police took 15 hours to respond and never bothered to leave a crime number even though I had over £5000 of uninsured property stolen. Now when I ring the local station 6 weeks later they have no record that officers even attended. Tony Martin had this happen to him many many times so I can understand now how he finally cracked.
Greg, London, UK
When I was about six years old, I remember mucking around on my parents phone (until they put a lock on it). On one occasion, I phoned 999 and remained silent. I held on for about a minute, and then hung up. About five minutes later, I picked-up the phone again to make more nuisance calls, and the 999 operator was still there. She ended up giving me a real ticking-off, and I never did it again!
Rob Holman, Chislehurst, Kent, England
What's the difficulty in calling the local police number? When I moved here last year I found the number and logged it into my phone. It's actually quicker to speed dial the local police station than hand dial 999! I bet most of these callers had a pizza delivery or minicab number handy!
Mike Power, UK
I feel those who wrote this article and those who responded have been entirely without sympathy or understanding for the lady with the spider in her bath. If you have never suffered from any kind of phobia it must be very easy to have a jolly good laugh at the 'silly lady'. But those who do suffer from phobias will appreciate how utterly terrifying suddenly coming face to face with the object of your phobia is. The mind shuts down and you beg for help from someone, anyone, to take the stimulus away. Not only does my mind shut down when I face my phobia, but in a second my pulse rate can double and sweat pour off me in the coldest weather. In that physical state I would suggest that for someone with a phobia, calling 999 for an ambulance or medical help is a very sensible idea indeed!
Less of the cheap mockery if you please!
David Brown, England
I once made a 999 call to fire brigade about a cow slipping into a river not being able to escape. Nobody was in danger, but the cow was getting tired and it was upsetting seeing it drowning. Fortunately a man with a pickup truck was eventually able to pull the cow out. I'm still not sure who I should have called.
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