A councillor has spoken out after the head of Scotland’s police watchdog said new technology should help alleviate concerns over local knowledge in the wake of police control room closures in the north of Scotland.
Chairman of the Scottish Police Authority, Andrew Flannagan, sparked concerns when he said information technology would play a “significant role” in supporting the co-ordination of police responses.
Jonathan Wills, who previously voiced support for an isles-based 999 centre amid concerns over a lack of local knowledge from central belt telephone operators and a possible struggle to understand local accents, insists Mr Flannagan is “out of tune with the public mood”.
Dr Wills says the moves by Police Scotland, which have been all the more controversial since a fatal M9 crash last year which police failed to investigate for three days, is an example of “technophilia” – an enthusiasm for new technologies.
He highlighted the IT problems in making subsidy payments to farmers and crofters as an example of where computer systems can go wrong.
He said Mr Flannagan was “wrong” and “mistaken” in his beliefs
“So, the technology’s there, but the knowledge isn’t,” Dr Wills said.
“I know what the public mood is and it is to restore a local 999 call answering service so that emergencies can be dealt with promptly and effectively.
“We had that for over 100 years, since the invention of the telephone. I would remind Mr Flannagan that the public pays his wages, and eventually they will have to do what the public want.
“It’s an example of technophilia. They assume that the new equipment can do everything. And so often we find, as we’ve found with the crofters’ payments, the new equipment often isn’t all that clever.
“And so often it’s cheaper and simpler to have a local person with common sense who understands the local accents, and knows the local geography, and no amount of technology is ever going to substitute for that.”
Mr Flannagan said control room operators were immediately given details, including a map of the area, through their computer systems of where an incident was taking place.
“The SPA understands concerns around a perceived loss of local knowledge as a result of the changes which are being progressed to restructure how Police Scotland receives and manages calls to 999 and 101,” he said.
“However, I would seek to reassure communities in this regard.
“Just last week, I visited the contact centre in Inverness to meet staff and officers working on the frontline of this important function in the north and I was reassured by what I saw and heard.
“It is clear that advances in technology has a significant role to play in supporting the how we improve service delivery in this area. Before a call is answered for example, technology provides critical reference information such as where a call is coming from even pinpointing it on a map.
“From speaking to the staff who work in Inverness, I know one of their biggest concerns was in understanding accents, local dialects or the use of local colloquialisms by callers, however they also told me how quickly they have managed to build up this specific local knowledge.
“Our objective as an authority is to ensure that change and reform delivers service benefits for the public in all parts of Scotland, and that we improve efficiency so we live within our budget and keep policing strong and visible in our communities.
“From speaking to the staff who work in Inverness, I know one of their biggest concerns was in understanding accents, local dialects or the use of local colloquialisms by callers, however they also told me how quickly they have managed to build up this specific local knowledge.” ANDREW FLANNAGAN
“We remain convinced that reform of control centres is the best current way of contributing to those twin objectives and would seek to reassure the communities in the north and islands of Scotland that the SPA will ensure the service is ready before any further transition takes place across the country.”
Earlier this year 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, resulting in the closure of centres in Inverness and Aberdeen.
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 the M9 incident.
Chairman of the resilience board, Alastair Cooper, previously warned a situation could emerge where messages from the Highlands 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.
South Mainland member, Allison Duncan, has since called upon Police Scotland’s chief constable, Phil Gormley – who recently succeeded Sir Stephen House as the country’s top police officer – to come to the isles and hear for himself concerns surrounding centralisation of emergency call centres.