The biggest challenges facing control rooms this year

Control rooms are an essential part of the emergency services, having immediate contact with citizens as well as frontline service providers. Because control room operators work to ensure an emergency call is dealt with, there’s a number of challenges that affect their roles. In this post we’ll take a look at just some of the challenges facing our emergency services control rooms today.

False alarms in the fire service control rooms 

False alarms continue to be the biggest demand fire and rescue services face. In 2018/19, across England 40.1 percent (231,067) of all incidents attended by Fire and Rescue Services were fire false alarms. The percentage differs across services. Over the same period, the percentage of all incidents attended that were fire false alarms ranged from 23.7 in Lincolnshire to 50.1 in West Sussex.

There are several reasons for these fire false alarm calls: nearly two-thirds (65 percent, 150,967) were due to apparatus such as a smoke alarm or sprinkler being triggered; just under a third (32 percent, 72,940) were made with good intent, but later discovered to be false alarms; 3 percent (7,160) were malicious reports.Fire services control rooms often use triage to find out if alarms are real or false. Specialist operators phone the alarm site and ask a member of staff to confirm if there is a fire. But this may not be accurate, if the person can’t monitor or check the whole building. Or there may not be anyone on site to check.Fire safety experts agree that an acceptable target would be 10-20% false alarms, or 80-90% genuine alarms.Every time the Fire Service sends a team out to a false alarm, it causes unnecessary expense. And there’s an extra overhead in funding the call centre teams. The Fire Industry Association (FIA) estimates that false alarms cost the UK over £1bn per year.A number of resources have been produced to help businesses reduce the amount of false calls into control rooms:

Tackling mental health in the control rooms 

NHS trusts throughout the UK are coping with rising demand from people requiring urgent mental health treatment. In 2016-17 there was a 32% increase in the number of hours spent by paramedics supporting people with mental health difficulties. In London that figure rose by 45%. The London Ambulance Service NHS trust control room takes 13,000 calls a month related to mental health – about 10% of all calls.Four years ago, it recruited mental health nurses in the control room to provide immediate expert help to callers. More recently, in south-east London, mental health nurses have been accompanying paramedics to patients experiencing a mental health emergency to offer immediate help. Nurses rotate between the call centre and the response car. Since the service launched last November, it has seen the proportion of patients taken to A&E dropping from 54% to 19%.The NHS has committed to implement a number of key changes as part of its long-term plan. By 2023/24 the NHS will introduce mental health transport vehicles, introduce mental health nurses in ambulance control rooms and build mental health competency of ambulance staff to ensure that ambulance staff are trained and equipped to respond effectively to people experiencing a mental health crisis.If you want to know more about mental health from the perspective of the control room, download our whitepaper.

Reducing non-emergency demand on the police

Calls to the police service both on the emergency 999 system and the non-emergency 101 system have seen significant year on year increases in recent years. This increased volume of calls has also combined with increased call handling times. This arises due the complexity of the demands faced by current day policing. All this comes at a time when policing resources are under continued pressure from budget reductions, creating situations where, at times, demand exceeds supply. Our Managing Demand whitepaper gives a wealth of insight into increasing demand and some ways in which it can be managed in the control room.

Pocket Dialling

Approximately 10% of 999 calls are classed as abandoned calls – when the line is disconnected before the caller speaks to a member of the emergency services or confirms to a BT 999 operator that they are safe and well. The most common type of abandoned calls is caused by someone accidentally ‘pocket dialling’ emergency services. This is where the phone is not locked and accidently calls 999.

Avon and Somerset Police have produced this simple “how-to” video for iPhone and Android devices to help people check their mobile phone settings and reduce the chances of calling 999 accidentally, a useful tool for sharing within your control room’s community, perhaps using social media.

Inappropriate Calls

From receiving complaints about coffee-making to asking for a taxi number and not being able to log into social media accounts – these are just some of the types of calls made to the control room – many of which came through on the emergency number.

Police forces across the UK regularly publish inappropriate calls to 999 online and via social media to highlight the issue and the impact these calls can have upon real emergencies.

It can be hard to judge what is or is not an emergency, but in general, it is recommended that a call to 999 should be made if:

  • A life is in danger or someone is being physically threatened, or if you are witnessing a crime happening at the time, or think the offenders are still nearby
  • You witness or are involved in a serious road traffic collision where someone is badly injured, or other vehicles are causing an obstruction or a danger to other road users

Otherwise calls should be made to the non-emergency line, 101. It is helpful to remind the community about what consistutes an emergency in order to help manage demand where it’s not appropriate.

The changing control rooms…

As technology allows services to collect more data, emergency service organisations face a challenge in making that data useful to staff. Addressing this challenge will require significant upfront investment, but could result in staff making better decisions, armed with the additional information they have access to. Staff can be resistant to change and may struggle to adapt to the new digital technologies. This change will need to be managed to ensure that personnel are fully utilising the wealth of information at their fingertips.

The potential benefits of the upcoming Emergency Services Network (ESN) and associated devices and technologies are significant and will bring positive outcomes for all stakeholders in the long run. As a supplier of critical, life-saving software used by one in two UK police forces and other emergency services organisations across the UK, APD is at the forefront of the ESN transition process.

Find out more

Find out more on our control room software page.