Trevor Laffan: Amidst the pranks and cranks, 999 is a lifeline police service

Trevor Laffan reflects on the ongoing controversy over cancelled 999 emergency calls
Trevor Laffan: Amidst the pranks and cranks, 999 is a lifeline police service

TO PROTECT AND SERVE: Allegations of 999 calls to guards going unanswered are troubling, says former garda Trevor Laffan

LIKE everyone else, I was shocked to see the recent newspaper headlines in relation to gardaí not responding to 999 emergency calls.

It’s been reported that around 3,000 of these calls were related to domestic abuse. In one instance, a woman who was assaulted by her partner rang 999 three times in one hour but gardaí never arrived.

An internal computer system designed to track and record 999 calls revealed that thousands of calls were being ‘cancelled’ by gardaí. This means the caller did not get a police response and it has been reported that hundreds of frontline gardaí are thought to be implicated in the cancellation of thousands of these calls to avoid follow-up inquiries and lessen their workloads. The figure of 10,000 has been mentioned.

The Garda Commissioner has apologised and said a new system had been put in place to ensure that 999 calls could now only be cancelled under supervision.

This confused me a little because, in my time in An Garda Siochana, the response to 999 calls was always supervised. I know this because from 2001 until around 2005, I was a supervisor in the garda command and control centre in Cork city which dealt with these calls. That centre is located in Anglesea Street and is the communications hub for gardaí, but also deals with calls from the general public, including 999 emergency calls.

In those days, when someone dialled 999, they were connected to a call centre based in Limerick, where an operator asked them what service they required ie. gardaí, fire service or ambulance. Their call was then transferred to the relevant service. For garda emergencies in Cork, those calls came to Anglesea Street, where a despatcher recorded the details and sent a garda to the scene.

The system for recording those calls and the action taken was very basic. Each call-taker used small index cards. When they received a phone call, they noted the details on one of these cards and, in the case of an emergency call, they wrote 999 in the corner of the card to distinguish it from an ordinary call.

The details of the member going to the scene were also recorded and they retained those cards until they received a result from the investigating member. At that stage, the cards were passed to me, and it was my job to check the results to ensure every call was dealt with satisfactorily before filing the cards in sequence for future reference.

All noteworthy incidents were highlighted for the information of the various superintendents across the garda division.

It wasn’t a very hi-tech system, but it was effective and, during my time there, I never had an issue with members refusing to respond to an emergency call.

Mistakes were made occasionally, and some calls fell through the cracks, but they were few and far between, and certainly nothing on the scale of what is currently being reported.

It wasn’t always easy though.

The call-takers didn’t always get clear information. Language difficulties, bad connections and lack of correct addresses were common and made things difficult.

It’s also worth noting that the 999 system was regularly abused, particularly on weekend nights. People used the emergency line for all sorts of nonsense.

It wasn’t unusual to receive calls complaining about the lack of taxis and even requests for spins home. Complaints about being refused entry into nightclubs were commonplace.

Drunks thought it was amusing to tie up the emergency line, talking rubbish, or to make spurious complaints against neighbours, friends, family members and gardaí, or just to complain about the weather.

We regularly received calls to addresses that didn’t exist and to incidents that never happened. The system received lots of abuse and it was wearying at times.

I knew what it was like to be on the other end too. In my younger days I responded to many of those calls. One guy in particular was a regular caller. He lived on his own in a dingy little flat and he obviously had his own issues to deal with.

The only reason he used the emergency line was to talk to someone. We advised him on numerous occasions not to abuse the service, but it was hard not to feel sorry for the guy so we still responded.

I was sent to a call about a domestic dispute one time at about 2am and I had difficulty finding the address. I drove around for ages until I eventually found it, but when I got to the front door there was no sign of life. I rang the bell anyway.

A lady opened the door and apologised for calling me out and assured me that everything was OK.

I had no reason to think otherwise so I left and thought no more about it. She wasn’t OK though and she was subsequently assaulted and reported the incident the following morning when her partner left the house.

There was no intention on my part to avoid dealing with the incident. The lady looked OK and sounded genuine, but that story being told by someone else might look completely different. Statistics don’t always tell the full story.

In my day, emergency calls were taken seriously and always took priority. 

Most of the people making these did so out of a real sense of fear and the vast majority were genuine. They wanted help and the reason we joined the force in the first place was to provide that service.

If that’s different now, then it represents a complete change in policing attitudes here and that would be very troubling.

I think we should keep our powder dry for a while though, until we hear the full story.

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