Special Report: New 101 number will free up 999 for real emergencies

TWO new three-digit numbers will be introduced in Cambridgeshire in a bid to stop around 150,000 county callers unnecessarily blocking 999 emergency lines each year.

Cambridgeshire Police will introduce an easy to remember 101 number next month so 999 lines can be kept clear for real emergencies.

And by April 2013 NHS Cambridgeshire will introduce a 111 number to prevent tens of thousands of Cambridgeshire callers ringing 999 for non-life threatening incidents each year – keeping the lines open for those urgently requiring an ambulance.

A total of 125,840 999 calls were made to Cambridgeshire Police in 2010-11, answered in the force control room at its Huntingdon headquarters.

Research shows that just a quarter of 999 calls made to the police nationally require a blue light response.

Cambridgeshire Police will retain its current non-emergency number – 0345 456 4564 – for the next 12 months to allow people time to get used to the 101 number.

The non-emergency calls are taken at the force’s police service centre in Peterborough and will use a new automated phone system which asks the caller to name the officer or extension number they need, before putting them through to a call handler should they not have that information.

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Someone witnessing a crime or a violent attack should ring 999 while 101 will be the number to call for incidents including burglary and car theft.

A spokesman for Cambridgeshire Police said numerous calls made to the force’s 999 line each year did not even qualify for either category.

Recent examples have included ‘What is today’s date?’, ‘I can’t find Homebase and need directions’ and ‘Is there a barber’s shop open in Cambridge?’.

The spokesman said: “The number change is part of a national scheme to make 101 the single non-emergency number in England and Wales.

“The change is being introduced so residents will have one easy-to-remember way to contact local police wherever they are.

“The new number should also reduce the number of non-emergency calls coming through to the 999 control room.”

Following successful pilot projects in other parts of the country, NHS Cambridgeshire is introducing a 111 non-emergency number to relieve some of the pressure from the East of England Ambulance Service’s 999 call centre.

A total of 74,887 emergency 999 calls were made from Cambridgeshire to the ambulance service during the 2010-11 financial year of which just over a third, 27,568, were classed as Category A calls, ie life threatening scenarios.

The 111 number will be staffed by a team of trained call advisors supported by nurses who will signpost patients to the most appropriate service around the clock.

The service will eventually replace NHS Direct.

Spokesman for NHS Cambridgeshire Lorraine Rollo said: “It is a national requirement that all NHS areas have a 111 number operational by April 2013 and we are working to this deadline in Cambridgeshire.”

Early indications from neighbouring police forces among the first in the country to introduce the 101 number in July are already demonstrating a reduction in the number of 999 calls.

Essex Police launched 101 on July 1 and throughout the month received 21,677 emergency calls, down from 23,793 in July 2010.

The number of non-emergency calls the force received increased in July to 41,840 from 41,121 the previous year.

Spokesman for Essex Police Roger Grimwade said: “We would hope as the 101 number becomes more familiar that we will see a continuing drop in 999 calls that are not true emergencies and an increase in the use of 101.”

And a total of 50 per cent of callers who previously had to ring one of the dozens of police stations in London are now ringing 101 directly with the Metropolitan Police reporting a desired drop in the number of 999 calls.

Spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Alastair Campbell said: “A quarter of 999 calls coming to Met are not emergencies.

“One of the reasons for introducing 101 is to take the pressure off 999 so we can respond to more genuine emergencies quicker.”

Although Cambridgeshire Police is meeting its target for answering 90 per cent of emergency calls within 10 seconds, the force has this week been criticised for only half of the calls made to its non-emergency number – 0345 456 4564 – being answered within the 30-second target time.

A spokesman for the force said the delay was due to introducing cost-cutting changes to the non-emergency number’s call handling service.

She said: “A decline in service was anticipated during the early stages of implementation and this will be improved through a series of developments in call automation.

“These developments are being introduced throughout the summer and should significantly improve the call handling rate.

“There are no plans to recruit additional resources for 101 but the force will look at what resources are in place around the implementation period to deal with an increased demand during high publicity.”