It’s the job of a police officer to keep the public safe – but at the end of the day, who protects the protectors?
It’s police control – a room of up to 45 cops and police staff who provide brave officers with vital information as they potentially put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public.
Controllers based at north area control room on Bell Street, Dundee, are responsible for dispatching officers to live incidents across north Scotland.
They prioritise crimes, road traffic collisions, severe weather incidents, mental health incidents, football matches, riots and any other event requiring police attendance.
They have access to scores of different police systems, databases and CCTV from all geographical areas north of Perth, which they scour for information about the people involved to relay back to responding beat officers.
Things such as previous convictions, drug abuse, a history of weapon use, a registered firearms holder or police approaches likely to exacerbate the situation are passed on to officers via an earpiece or police radio.
PC Fiona Duncan, a controller in the north area control room, said: “We’re there to keep the officers safe.
“When we get a call, we run it through various checks to identify markers – such as if the suspect is likely to have a weapon or if the victim has previously been a victim of domestic violence.
“The number of markers helps us evaluate officer safety issues and establish how best to respond. If there is concern for anyone involved then the right approach is crucial when officers attend.”
Calls are prioritised based on the number of other jobs going on at the time and type of incident. For example, a theft incident is a priority two call but one which involves a person injured is priority one.
But Police Scotland is moving towards a new initiative, being trialled in North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire and Dumfries and Galloway, which assesses each call on an individual basis.
Carrying the tagline “Every call is different, so is our response”, the new system will be rolled out at north area control room next year.
Chief Superintendent Roddy Newbigging, C3 Division Commander, said: “The new initiative focuses on the vulnerability risk association of each call.
“Its priority will be a decision made by a controller, rather than based on crime type, meaning the controller can take into account the location, for example if it was an elderly person’s home, the time of day and the previous history of the victim.”
Three divisions operate within the north area control room – D Division which covers the old Tayside Police area, A Division which is the former Grampian Police area and N Division which covers the old Northern Constabulary.
The control room does not take 999 or non-emergency 101 calls. These are handled in Glasgow, Motherwell and Edinburgh.
It focuses only on dispatching resources to where calls have been taken and responds to about 3.2 million calls a year.
Also based at Dundee’s police HQ are three north area overview rooms, one for each of the north, east and west areas, which specialise in high priority major incidents.
Controllers in these rooms can dispatch specialist resources, such as helicopter, firearms and large-scale search teams, if the inspector gives these teams the go-ahead to attend.
Three event management rooms also act like reserve control rooms and can be set up during large-scale incidents when extra manpower is needed.
Chief Superintendent Newbigging has 27 years of police service, three of which have been in his current role.
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He was involved in setting up the first police control room in Strathclyde and has witnessed many changes in its operation since, mainly due to advances in technology.
He said: “In the past, if incidents happened they could only be handled in the area where they took place.
“People in the control room would take the emergency call, handle the dispatch of officers and deal with high priority cases.
“It meant that if one incident was getting lots of calls, like a collision on a busy motorway, then that area would be overloaded with calls.”
Ch Supt Newbigging said that now the workload is shared between the service centres and other divisions when needed.
He added: “Our controllers are our greatest asset.
“They have a real desire to do the right thing by the public and to make a difference and our current set-up means that they can now do that more effectively than ever.”
Local Commander Chief Inspector Julie Robertson has 27 years of police service and has been in her current role since February.
Before that she held a regional role during which she worked closely with C3 Division (Contact, Command and Control).
She said: “I don’t say this lightly – controllers are life-savers.
“The checks they make on a daily basis, just simple checks, can be vital information which saves a police officer and reduces danger to the public too.
“I have been impressed by the number of them who go above and beyond in order to deliver, even when things get tough.”
Ch Insp Robertson said the challenges of the job can make it tough, due to the sheer volume of calls and the nature of some of them.
She added: “Lots of them (controllers) do depend on the support of their family.
“Although they can’t talk about the details of the calls, they can talk about how they are feeling and that support cannot be overestimated.”
PC Fiona Duncan, a controller in the north area control room, has 14 years police service, two of which have been working in control and the others serving as a beat officer.
PC Duncan said that having worked on “both sides” she understands how crucial communication between the two of them is.
She said: “As a beat cop you rely so heavily on control.
“I remember one incident where I was tracking a dog handler and I hadn’t realised my earpiece had fallen out and I got a point-to-point call on my radio from my controller.
“They said the dog handler was worried because they’d been calling and calling and I hadn’t answered, and I told them I was fine, I still had line of sight.
“Now, working in control, I do worry if I haven’t heard from an officer for a while.”
PC Duncan said the role can be stressful at times and the nature of the calls can be difficult.
She said: “I’ve dealt with incidents that will never, ever leave me – incidents which members of the public will never see or deal with their whole lives.
“I’ve been though days and thought ‘I never want to live a day like that again’.
“Days dealing with incidents which result in the death of a child or any death at all – everyone is someone’s family member – are difficult but you have to dust yourself off and start again the next day.”
North Overview communication officer Gillian Wilson has 24 years of experience, 21 of which were spent working in the former control room.
She said: “We did everything before, answering emergency calls, dispatching police officers and dealing with critical, high priority incidents.
“In the past, when there was a critical incident, everyone would get involved. Now it’s more streamlined and better managed.”
Gillian has worked in the north area overview room since it was set up three years ago and specialises in high priority incidents and major incidents, such as murders or large-scale disturbances.
She said: “It’s not all doom and gloom. We do get the occasional baby born in a layby but it’s the more traumatic things that stick with you.
“You have to try to keep a sense of humour.
“I remember speaking to someone who was suicidal and had a gun to his head. We spoke for more than an hour.
“At the end of it he said ‘You seem really nice but I bet you’re fat and ugly’ and I thought if he can keep a sense of humour at his most critical time of need, then there is no reason why we can’t.”