‘Police don’t know where Bukit Panjang Plaza?’: What it’s like taking and processing 999 calls
SINGAPORE: The phone rang and it was a harried voice on the other end. “Hello police? Faster come. There is a man acting suspiciously,” the caller said.
This was part of a dummy 999 call that the police arranged for journalists to experience the stress and difficulties of answering and processing emergency calls. The demonstration was conducted on Jan 13 at the Police Operations Command Centre (POCC) in New Phoenix Park.
The POCC, officially launched in 2015, comprises the emergency communications group, the incident watch group and the sense making group.
The first group takes emergency calls and decides if a response is required. The second group dispatches officers and vehicles to the scene. The third group uses different tools to get more details on the incident.
As a member of the emergency communications group, I had earlier been briefed that I needed to get crucial details like incident location and description of the suspect.
But when I asked the caller where the suspect was, his reply was short: “Bukit Panjang Plaza.” When I asked him to be more specific, he said the suspect was at a covered walkway near the mall. When I asked the caller to give more details for an exact location, he got frustrated.
“Police don’t know where Bukit Panjang Plaza?” he snapped. “Just come faster.”
Taken aback, I moved on to questions about the suspect. What was he doing? What was he wearing? The caller said he does not know. When I asked the caller for his own name, he refused to give it either. He just kept asking for officers to arrive as soon as possible.
Tempering my own frustration and trying not to panic, I typed out these details in broken sentences in the command and control system. When I selected Bukit Panjang Plaza from a location drop down list, a map on my right side screen automatically zoomed into the area.
Next, I selected the type of incident and inserted the caller’s mobile number, which I was told was a very important detail. Finally, I created the incident. This initial draft needs to be created quickly as time is of the essence.
Watch officers would then pick up on the case and decide which resources to send. They can see the available police cars in different land divisions for the day, and will assume command and control of resources on the ground, telling officers where to go and what to look out for.
At the same time, officers in the sense making group can view the feed of police cameras near the scene, giving them a live view of the incident. They can rewind the footage to identify the suspect, then view other cameras to track the suspect. They can also scour social media and their own databases for more information on the incident.
The three groups work in a proactive rather than sequential process that ensures the police can get a headstart on tackling these crimes, as officers know what they are facing and what they need to do even before reaching the scene.
Also present in the POCC are liaison officers from other Home Team agencies, like the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, to enable a more comprehensive and seamless response to the incident.
This kind of workflow is a step up from what the police used to do.
In previous years, a combined operations room at New Phoenix Park also handled 999 calls, but routed the reports to the respective land divisions. These divisions had their own operations rooms that monitored police cameras and dispatched resources to the scene. Other Home Team agencies worked separately.
In July 2018, the operations rooms were co-located in the POCC, reducing miscommunication and allowing quicker dissemination of information.
“It wasn’t until the last few years that we have access to the police cameras from our POCC watch floor,” POCC commander Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police (SAC) Lee Su Peng said.
“In the past, the ops centre was blind to what’s going on on the ground. We couldn’t help officers much, except when they said they needed extra resources. Other than that, the sense making and incident management really depended on the forces on the ground.”
The POCC, considered the 24/7 nerve centre of police operations, is filled with officers seated in neat rows, facing a wall of CCTV feeds from about 90,000 cameras islandwide. Previously, footage from some cameras needed to be manually extracted on site.
The centre received nearly 1.2 million 999 calls in 2020, or more than 3,000 a day, and the target is to answer the call within 10 seconds or three rings. It also receives crime information from other public platforms like SMS lines or i-Witness reports.
For callers who speak a foreign language that nobody on duty understands, the POCC can activate interpreter services in a three-way call.
EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS GROUP
However, more than 60 per cent of the 1.2 million calls were nuisance calls, with SAC Lee saying this proportion has held steady in recent years.
Officers in the emergency communications group, majority of whom are civilian employees trained to answer 999 calls, must sieve out prank calls based on experience, what they can hear in the background, and whether the number calling has a history of making such calls.
These calls would sometimes involve silent callers, mischievous children or people who “always like to disturb the police”, said emergency communications officer Mohamad Suhaimi Ami, 30, who has worked at the POCC for seven years.
“It doesn’t get to the point where I feel irritated by it, but having too many nuisance calls, I’m afraid emergency calls might not be able to reach us,” he said.
“We are here to protect lives ... the public needs to know that the emergency line is really for emergency use. We will warn (nuisance callers), but not to the point where we will scold them.”
Despite that, Mr Suhaimi said some perceived nuisance callers are actually people who need help but cannot talk freely, as he recalled handling one such call a few years ago.
The caller said she wanted to order a pizza. Mr Suhaimi, adept at recognising signs of emergency and asking the right questions, told the woman she was calling the police. The woman insisted that she wanted a pizza. This was when he started asking yes and no questions.
It turned out that the woman did need help. “While using the topic of ordering food, I got information like the address and all, and officers were dispatched to the location afterwards,” Mr Suhaimi said. The incident turned out to be “nothing serious”.
For Mr Suhaimi, another type of call that sticks out are those by people who say they are going to commit suicide. In these cases, call takers are trained to stay on the line until officers get to the scene.
“This is where we need to empathise with the caller and try our best to help the person while waiting for resources to be dispatched, and to intervene in any act of suicide,” he said, adding that he will slowly ask questions to understand the caller’s issues.
“And that is meaningful for me, to save lives.”
INCIDENT WATCH GROUP
Calls involving potential suicide are classified as emergency incidents, and this is when the incident watch group has to work quickly. For really urgent situations, the emergency communications group can use a PA system to alert the entire watch floor to monitor the call.
“For emergency incidents like suicide, robbery, snatch theft or crime in progress, we cannot wait for the call to the end,” watch commander Superintendent of Police (SUPT) Nini Chow said.
“My call takers must ask for a lot of things about the incident. We have these golden hours, about 15 to 30 minutes (after the call is taken), so we have to work very fast and sometimes we have to handle multiple incidents.”
The incident watch group must also decide how many and what type of resources to deploy, based on how severe the incident is and how quickly it could escalate.
For instance, the watch commander can call on some specialist units, like the Police Tactical Unit or K-9 Unit under the Special Operations Command, for assistance. For higher level resources, the case has to be escalated up the command structure.
“If a person is lost in the forest, you need a tracker. To tackle a terrorist kind of situation, you need another kind of police resource,” SUPT Chow said. “(The sense making) starts when you receive the call.”
SENSE MAKING GROUP
While sense making is generally done across the three groups, officers in the sense making group consolidate information from both internal and external tools to form a situational picture of what might have happened in relation to the incident.
External tools include eyewitness accounts gathered by officers on the ground and CCTV footage from shops and other establishments, while internal tools include police cameras and databases.
The police uses its cameras to do tracking and trawling, where officers comb through footage from different police cameras to get more details on the suspect’s identity and whereabouts.
The cameras, installed since 2003, are “strategically” located at crowded areas as well as entrance and exit points. Officers have sniffed out suspects’ hiding spots using these cameras.
These details are fed to officers before they reach the scene, leading to swift arrests in some cases, including wanted persons and snatch thefts. In one case involving the latter, the suspect was arrested within 20 minutes, police highlighted.
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The police also uses these cameras to do “virtual policing”, where it monitors live feeds from crime hotspots. In one case, officers watched an argument among youths develop into a fight, before the group dispersed.
Police identified the suspects, determined where they went and dispatched officers even before a call came in. The suspects were soon arrested.
“The difference now is we have eyes on the ground, and not just eyes, we are able to go back in time to replay all the footage,” SAC Lee said, adding that the POCC can crop out a short clip containing crucial details to be sent to officers on the ground.
“From there, it’s easier to look out for suspects. The ground officers are supported by us very proactively.”