From 'he's got a knife' to 'man detained by officers' takes four minutes, thanks to our 999 team
Every day, hundreds of 999 emergency calls are made by people living throughout Derbyshire. And all of them are answered in one room. Chris Jones reports.
THE shout comes up from across the room, turning everyone's head: "He's got a knife. He's pulled a knife on someone."
Immediately, the most senior ranking man in the control room, the inspector, looks up, wanting more information.
The call-taker acknowledges this with a nod and continues to take details, talking calmly but firmly into the headset, asking the caller what is happening, who is armed with what, and gently encouraging the person to stay calm.
Team leader Phill Blood, who is showing me how the police control room in Ripley works, starts clicking through screens at his computer, telling me what is happening. The time is 11.30pm on a weeknight.
"Ok, so you can see here," he points at a couple of text boxes on one screen, "the call-taker has already filled this in. She's been filling it in from the moment she picked up the call.
"It's a call from a woman. Her brother is drunk and he's started on a friend. Because there is a knife involved, this one goes through the inspector."
In the time Phill has been speaking, the details have already been forwarded to the control room operator in charge of the central Derby area – the address is a local one.
The operator, in turn, has contacted a couple of officers on the ground via radio and they are en route to the house where the call originated.
Phill nods and says: "The call-taker is trying to calm the woman down. Drink is such a big problem in domestic situations like these. You have no idea how many calls like this we get. But we can't take any chances.
"Oh, see? There you are, subject detained."
The time is now 11.34pm. Since the 999 call was made, a full account of the situation has been taken, passed through the control room and fed directly to officers on the street, who have been round to the house, gained entry and detained the armed man.
Four minutes. It's impressive. And it needs to be.
Each day, more than 2,000 calls are made to Derbyshire police. These will be a mixture of emergency 999 calls, non-emergency calls to the 101 number, and internal calls within the police.
In Ripley, at Derbyshire Constabulary's headquarters, there is a large, recently-built brick building which houses the control room.
This is where all these calls are answered. The upper floor deals with the 101 calls and the internal communication, the downstairs floor takes the 999 emergencies, or the "three-nines" as they are referred to internally.
Downstairs, there is a staff of about 20 people taking hundreds of 999 calls each day. Walking into the main control room is like walking on to the bridge of the USS Enterprise.
Several huge screens dominate the front wall, showing CCTV footage from cameras across the county.
These track vehicles and people, and keep known trouble spots highlighted, like Morledge and the Market Place in Derby.
Facing this are several banks of desks, each staffed with a head-set-equipped operator.
There is a constant chatter and hubbub, with the occasional raised voice – "Calm down, please. Calm down, I need to ask you these questions" – as, with practised patience, the operators deal with frantic, emotional callers.
Each desk has several computer monitors arranged in a wrap-around curve, giving each operator CCTV readouts, information screens and access to databases. Along the back wall is a long cupboard with sliding doors, filled with jackets, snacks, teabags and so on.
There is also a well-stocked kitchen with loaves of bread, cereals and soup cans. The shifts are long and the centre is manned every day around the clock.
There are a couple of call-takers who field the majority of the calls.
They take the initial details and pass each case on to the relevant operator for that geographical area.
Derbyshire is split into nine policing areas – Chaddesden, Pear Tree, Swadlincote, Amber Valley and so on – and each is dealt with by a separate control room staff member.
It is the jobs of these operators to get in touch with officers on the ground, keep them updated and relay information.
When the system is fully engaged, it enables a rapid response to almost any emergency anywhere in the county.
The problems arise when there is no emergency.
Phill explained: "I have spoken to people on 999 calls who were asking for the best transport links to London or about the weather and things like that.
"It is easy to get wound up about it, but there is a chance people don't know about 101 and non-emergency calls."
But he said there was another side to things. "We had an old woman called 101 and she was explaining that she was afraid and was sorry to be calling, and it turned out she had been beaten by a gang.
"If it needs dealing with there and then, and it involves life or property, it's an emergency. But it's difficult, it's not straightforward. If someone has been living a crime-free life, then gets their milk bottle stolen from outside, to them it's an emergency.
"But, in that instance, we would ask them to call 101 and we would send a PCSO around to their house.
"Of course, there are also examples of people not thinking a genuine emergency worthy of 999.
"Ultimately, we can't stop people calling 999 and we will always respond to the call, we have to. It is a free service and everyone knows the number.
"But we want to stress, so much, that if a call is not an emergency, then please call 101. That's what it's there for."
The festive weeks are some of the busiest for control room staff. Phill said that, along with big football matches, like England games, and bonfire night, it was the busiest time of the year.
He said: "We had the flooding a few weeks back and we got a lot of calls about that. Some of it is genuine emergencies, others things which we try to warn against.
"We had drivers calling to stay they were stuck on flooded roads after driving past road closed signs. Surely it's common sense not to do that? But we have to respond to it.
"And at Christmas you get a huge amount of domestic incidents."
Arguments and assaults in the home are some of the most common types of 999 calls. Phill said that 76% of all police cases in Derbyshire were classed as domestic incidents.
Picking a day at random – July 4 this year – he shows me on the computer that there were 44 domestic 999 calls.
"Add Christmas to this, when families are penned together, drink is flowing and people get a bit irritable and the calls shoot up," he said.
"It's often the afternoon, blokes have been down the pub and they come back, fall asleep and ignore the dinner their partners have spent all morning cooking.
"You also get a lot of burglaries around Christmas, all those presents in each house, a lot of high-end electrical goods, it's like treasure troves. We would advise everyone to lock everything up tightly around Christmas."
On a busy day, the control room team might take 200 emergency calls. But on New Year's Eve, the number of 99 calls easily hits 300. Phill said: "It's domestics, it's assaults – a lot of people out, a lot of drinking and it's just inevitable. But we have to answer each and every one, put it through, log it and action it as far as we can. It's a busy night."
While I was in the control room, a call came through from a man threatening to slice open his wrists.Keeping him on the phone, the operators worked with officers in the area to find the man and detain him.
But I asked Phill about the effect taking the calls had on the staff.
"It's difficult. There's nobody here who hasn't been affected by what they have heard. I remember being on when a chap jumped from the roof of Westfield.
"But apart from taking the call, acting calm and passing on all the details to officers, there is little you can do.
"But the thing is you are here, on the end of the phone. And it makes a huge difference – all the difference – in so many emergencies."