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Newman Online: The Government's 111 disaster

Newman Online: The Government's 111 disaster

This week Newman Online takes a close look at the scandalous report into the police emergency 111 system.

My elderly mother wears an emergency location beeper around her neck. If she falls or finds herself in trouble and needs assistance, she can activate it so that emergency help will be dispatched. It gives her the confidence to continue to live in her own home alone. It provides a wonderful service, and while we all hope that she will never need to use it, it gives her – and us – the peace of mind of knowing that help is on hand.

So it is with the emergency 111 telephone service. While most of us will never use it – and I have yet to find anyone that I know personally who has ever called 111 – it is there for us in times of need. Or so we thought.

The release of the “Communications Centres Service Centre Independent External Review” this week is devastating. It contains shocking revelations about the appalling state of New Zealand’s emergency services. It highlights widespread systemic failure, which has at its heart, a lack of understanding of the core purpose and business of Communications Centres, not only within the police, but even within the centres themselves.

That almost unbelievable finding effectively means that the police and the Communications Centre staff themselves really didn’t know what they were meant to be doing. It means that in this most critical of public services, the blind are leading the blind.

The report goes on to highlight the failure to have in place an overall communications strategy, the absence of any proper coordination between the country’s three separate Communications Centres, a lack of understanding of the importance of the service by the different Police Districts and with no performance standards in place in the centres, the managers and staff “do not know what they are working towards”.

The problem of low morale was noted as a major issue with the “historically high rates of absenteeism for sick leave” identified as a key indicator. This accounts for the fact that it was not unusual for a call centre operator to be forced to work one shift after another with only a six hour break in between instead of the nine hours required by law.

The stress these operators have been under is epitomised by the development of a “blame” culture that lacked any form of positive reinforcement.

Effectively, the report exposes the fact that the public cannot rely on the Police emergency 111 system to come to their rescue in times of crisis. With all of the taxes that we pay, the public deserves to have a state of the art emergency system operating at the highest level of priority, professionalism and performance.

A very worrying aspect of this whole issue is that most people thought that was what we had, that is until the media started reporting a range of high profile failures in the system.

It was reported today that the family of Iraena Asher, who disappeared seven months ago from Piha, after she called 111 in an extremely distraught state only to have a taxi dispatched by the Comms Centre to the wrong address, have decided to take a civil action against the police.

They revealed that they have been treated abysmally by the police, in the aftermath of their daughter’s disappearance, finding it almost impossible to access information about what actually happened during those last few hours of her life. They said it has been like trying to get blood out of a stone.

Maggie Bentley and her husband Peter, who are also high profile victims of a Communications Centre failure, have also reported the way they have been treated since their botched 111-call has been disgraceful. No-one from the police or the government has contacted them about the complaints they have laid, yet the Bentleys went through hell.

Mrs Bentley called 111 to report that a brutal home invasion was taking place and that her husband was being savagely attacked and beaten. She was told that help was on the way. But it wasn’t. Not only was she misled, but her phone was blocked to stop her calling her neighbours for help.

Yesterday in Parliament, the Minister of Justice tried to justify that action by saying that “another person should not be put in a position of putting his or her life at risk in the meantime while the police are responding to the call". Yet that statement is entirely at odds with the situation that a constituent of mine recently found himself in, when he received a call from local police asking him to go to a nearby address to check out just how serious a reported violent emergency situation was.

The sole police officer in the police station explained that he was not allowed to leave his post to respond to the 111-call on his own. While operational procedures meant that a single police officer was not allowed to attend such an emergency on his own, he felt quite at liberty to ask a civilian on their own, to go instead!

So while Maggie Bentley was not allowed to call on neighbours to help her husband, it appears that police regularly do just that, themselves.

Clearly such inconsistencies and failure have resulted in a widespread loss of confidence in the police emergency 111-system. And the responsibility for that should lie firmly at the feet of the Prime Minister.

Of all of the matters that her government has to attend to, the two most critical are those that relate to life-threatening emergency situations – the emergency 111-call system and hospital critical care. If the government fails in either of these areas, the consequences can be dreadful. So when I read that the failure of our emergency services is a result of a lack of leadership, then that points to a dereliction of duty at the highest level.

Instead of obsessing herself with her social engineering agenda which has intruded unnecessarily into family, moral and personal matters, the Prime Minister should have focused her effort into making sure that the government service that we all need to rely on in times of emergency is properly functioning to a world class standard. That is the least that the public can expect.

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