Harsh criticism has been levelled at the Scottish government following the go-ahead of plans to close emergency control centres in Inverness and Aberdeen.
Jonathan Wills, who sits on the community safety and resilience board, has described the Scottish government as “criminally reckless” in its actions.
He has been supported by board chairman, Alastair Cooper, who says the move represents “a backwards step” and warned the implications could initially be worse than first feared.
This week it emerged all 101 and 999 calls will go through to a national service centre based at Bilston Glen, Govan and Motherwell, from late June. A regional control room in Dundee will subsequently be called upon to act as a command centre for incidents in the north of Scotland. The move was put on hold last year following a fatal crash on the M9, in which it took police three days to attend the scene.
Dr Wills has been particularly angered by the decision, not least because it comes just one month after he made calls for a feasibility study to be carried out into the possibility of opening a dedicated 999 centre in the isles.
He believes having a centre here would ensure local accents are more easily understood. Call handlers, he says, would be better able to understand certain geographical quirks, such as different places with the same name.
And he has dismissed the community safety and resilience board as “just a talking shop”, arguing police and fire representatives feel unable to speak out at them because to do so would effectively lead to them openly criticising their employers.
“It’s outrageous, and extremely reckless. In my view, it’s criminally reckless of the government.
“I’ve repeatedly raised at the community resilience safety committee the need for a locally staffed emergency call centre.”
Dr Wills stressed he was in favour of having a national police service. But he said he did not believe that should preclude the isles from having a local emergency response centre.
“I really despair. The community safety committee has discussed this repeatedly, and nothing has happened. It’s clear the Police Scotland bosses are just ignoring these community safety and resilience committees. The old police committee had power. We have none. It’s just a talking shop.
“All the [emergency] services are represented on the community safety board. But you can’t ask the police officers and the fire officers to vote on something like this, because they’d be voting against their employers’ policy.
“David Cameron has threatened to deport Muslim women who can’t speak English. Frankly, is somebody in Dundee going to understand somebody in Whalsay, or the West Side of Orkney, or the Western Isles?
“It’s not possible for one member of staff in Dundee to know anything at all about the difference between one Sandwick in Orkney and one Sandwick in Shetland.”
He suggested scrapping the Trident defence system to help make up any financial shortfall in providing the local service.
“A simple common-sense way to run this is to have a locally-staffed centre, and if it cost a lot of money, there are other things the government could scrap, starting with Trident.”
Dr Wills said he would raise the issue at the next community safety board meeting, which is due to take place next Thursday.
Mr Cooper warned the move could have serious consequences for communities such as Shetland.
He said a situation would emerge where calls from the Highlands and Islands or Aberdeen could go to Johnstone in Renfrewshire, but it would be up to staff in Dundee to dispatch an officer to the scene of an incident.
“You could have a situation where there is a garbled message given to somebody in Johnstone, which is then transferred as a garbled message to somebody in Dundee.
“It’s actually more scary as you think. I think that it’s a backward step.” ALASTAIR COOPER
“It’s actually more scary as you think. I think that it’s a backward step, at least in the short-term until you get properly organised with it.
“With technology nowadays, it is possible. But when I hear the likes of that, where only Dundee can dispatch an officer, you realise it’s not as joined up as it could be.”
Asked if he supported Dr Wills’ calls for a locally-based 999 centre, he said he favoured longer opening hours of the police station.
“Ideally we could have the police station open 24/7. The thing is, if you actually have a control room in Shetland … there is a lot more cost, and we all ken the police force in Scotland is struggling with cost at the moment.”
Mr Cooper said he had been due to hold a meeting with control room operators next month. However, that meeting had been postponed and was now not due to take place until March.
He said Highland Council had “not given up” on the idea of keeping the centre in Inverness.
Isles MSP, Tavish Scott, said the SNP-led authority should think again.
“The Scottish government should tell Police Scotland to reverse this decision and retain both the Aberdeen and Inverness control rooms.
“This will be a step backwards in terms of placing 999 calls to the police.
“After the shambles of recent events involving police control rooms, there can be no justification for this change and I fear for the ability of people to get through to someone who even knows where Shetland is, never mind have accurate descriptions understood of where an incident might be happening.”
Asked whether technical features in control room equipment might overcome a lack of geographical knowledge, he added: “They said that about the incident where two people died on the M9.
“I’ve lost patience with Police Scotland and the Scottish government’s reliance on so-called technical solutions.
“All the technology in the world sometimes just doesn’t work. There are real risks with what is being proposed and the government should step in and stop it.”
The Shetland Times tried to contact SNP Scottish election candidate Danus Skene for a comment, but he failed to respond to calls before we went to press.
In an unattributed statement, Police Scotland said: “Today, staff were informed of the latest developments, which include potential dates for changes to be implemented.
“This is an indicative timeline which will be subject to scrutiny and independent review prior to implementation, in keeping with HMICS recommendations.
“This is essential to enable effective planning and part of our commitment to keep the staff informed of all developments.
“We also informed them that we plan to work towards moving all 101 and 999 emergency calls from Dundee into the national virtual service centre, based at Bilston Glen, Govan and Motherwell, with effect from late June 2016.
“By late August 2016 we propose to have moved all telephony within Inverness (101 and 999 calls) to the national virtual service centre and at the same time all command and control functionality will pass across to Dundee regional control room.
“By late October 2016, in a similar fashion to Inverness, it is proposed all telephony and command and control functionality will switch from Aberdeen to the national virtual service centre and the Dundee regional control room.
“Police Scotland remains committed to protecting our front line delivery and therefore the pace of change will be managed in a safe and assured way. No changes will be implemented until they have been approved by Scottish Police Authority.”