Police Control Room TOI

Bangalore Mirror Newspaper: Stand in line for helpline

Posted on Posted in Press Coverage

The question is: To dial 100 or not when you need help. While some say that the emergency helpline came to their aid, there are others who question its ‘functioning’. The cops have their say too

She was walking down the road to catch a ride home; the bus stop was five minutes away. 10.45 pm; the city was not yet asleep, but it was winding down for the day. The Trinity Church road, leading to old Airport road, was bereft of pedestrians, except for Kavita Kumari, a journalist with a national weekly. Clad in mommy-jeans, sneakers, XXL kurta, and carrying a plump backpack, Kumari walked tall and strong at 5’9” and 89 kgs. She didn’t notice the bare road or the eerie silence punctuated occasionally by a noisy horn of a speeding Qualis. She’s been a news woman for more than a decade; travelling alone and in the night became part of her job profile long ago.

[KravMagaBangalore.in] [Post] A few minutes into her walk, a white Sumo car with two men came cruising by. They were young, urbane and could be tagged ‘friendly’; on that friendless night they were bullies. “We will drop you,” said one of them in clipped Harvard-educated English. Kumari declined. They pursued.

The Sumo stopped a few meters ahead, doors opened and the men leaped out. “You will not get a ride on this road,” they said. “We think you should come with us.” The ‘should’ sounded ominous.

What do you do when you are accosted by strangers on a lonely night? You call for help. Kumari dialled 100, repeatedly…

* * *

DIAL 100, the emergency helpline in Bangalore was established in 2006 at the cost of Rs 1.2 crores. “Dial 100 gives people solace,” says Uday Shankar, ACP (Police Control Room), who has been credited with establishing the emergency helpline in its current technologically advanced avatar. All calls to DIAL 100 go to the police control room located within the premises of the Police Commissioner’s office on Infantry Road; the system is manned by 40 police women 24/7; the emergency helpline has two PRI (Primary Rate Interface) lines, each PRI line can receive/send 30 calls simultaneously. “Help should reach the needy within 20 minutes of the call being made,” explains ACP Shankar. But ‘help’ eluded Kumari on that forlorn night.

* * *

Looking for an escape route, Kumari crossed the road hoping to seek refuge in one of the military officers’ quarters lining the road. Her sweaty fingers punched 1-0- 0 on her aged Nokia mobile. All she got in response: a gloomy hush. Kumari knocked on the gate with an imposing military insignia. A gaunt guard in a night-vest opened the gates. It was enough for the moment. Seeing their diabolic plans go awry, the suave duo made a quick escape.

A few minutes later, Kumari resumed her homeward journey. But the night was far from over!

Round the bend, Kumari was waylaid by yet another pair –this time on a bike. Young and Hindi-speaking, they went one step ahead of their predecessors; they physically blocked Kumari’s path. “I was scared and angry,” she recalls.

Fear turned Kumari’s blue Kurta dark with sweat; her knees knocked under her baggy jeans and hands trembled as she dialled 1-0-0, again. A long beep followed by silence “I realised that I wasn’t going to get any help from the helpline,” recalls Kumari. “I had to do something to save myself.”

Fear and anger, sometimes, release courage; buoyed by adrenaline in a person, it can be portentous. The lone woman straightened her spine and cranked up her voice box; she screamed expletives, dropped ‘big’ names and played her journalist card. Autos that were prowling for late night customers and a few cars that were hurrying home began to slow down; they were curious about the big woman with a backpack hurling abuse at two men on a silent night. Sensing trouble, the bikers sped away.

Kumari got into an auto, who charged her Rs 170 for a Rs 17 ride, to reach the nearby bus-stop. She dialled 100 as many times as she could. “It is frustrating to know that you cannot depend on an emergency number during an emergency,” she says.

What Kumari didn’t know at that time was that there are jammers in military areas that interfere with mobile signals. But, what Kumari couldn’t understand now was, why she couldn’t get through to the emergency helpline from her BSNL network from Domlur, Indiranagar, Airport Road, Marathalli and Brookefields. “At some point I should’ve gotten through, right?” she asks. “But I didn’t.”

* * *

The control room where the emergency helpline operators work is a box of a room. 12-14 women form an island in the middle. The women sit on either side of a wooden partition. There are no individual booths; the workers are separated by their breaths and the arms of their chairs; their elbows knock; their conversations are crowded and never theirs alone; it spills over and mingles with the neighbours’ complaints.

“We receive around 10,000 to 15,000 calls every day,” explains ACP Shankar. The staff records the time, caller name and nature of calls, and produce a docket number too; simultaneously these are also recorded manually in a large old fashioned book. On that particular day, up until noon, there were just three emergency calls that were noted in the book: a chain snatching in RT Nagar; a complaint against a group of Christians distributing pamphlets; another against a group gambling. ACP Shankar explains: “We don’t enter all the 10,000 calls that we receive. Because most of them are prank calls or calls that do not require help; many call to ask for telephone numbers…by making unnecessary calls, the public ties up the phone lines.”

* * *

Once Kumari reached home, shaken and disturbed, she dialled 100 from her landline. For the first time that night, she was able to get through. But, what followed made her livid. “First there was a recorded message in two languages and then I hear the most lethargic voice ever,” says Kumari.

Kumari: “Why couldn’t I connect to DIAL 100 from my mobile phone 30 minutes ago? I was in danger and needed help. Is there a problem….”
Operator: “Ask your service provider.” Click!

After we heard about Kumari’s experience, we wanted to find out if the Dial 100 service was really so bad. For the next one week, we got 25 people to Dial 100 from different mobile phones, under all the existing service providers and from different corners of the city. We dialled 100 from the landline too. Barring twice when somebody answered our call immediately after three or four rings, all the other times we got a recorded message before an operator attended the call or the phone kept ringing till it got disconnected or worse still, it just wouldn’t connect.

When you dial 100, nine out of ten times you will get a recorded message (first in Kannada and then in English): Welcome to the police control room. Dial 100 is your saviour. Use it when you are in distress. Do not misuse it under any circumstances. If you misuse, you are liable for punishment.

Total time: 55 secs before an operator comes on line. According to Krav Maga Bangalore instructor Franklin Joseph, many things can happen in less than 60 secs: molestation (10-20 secs), robbery (10-20 secs), eve teasing (2-3 secs).

“When I call DIAL 100 it’s because I need help…I don’t need a recorded, welcome message,” says Kumari.

* * *

DIAL 100 works on the “principle of hunting facility. If the lines are busy you will hear a recorded message,” says ACP Shankar. “Do remember that Bangalore is about 729 sq kms. It has a population of 80 lakhs and a floating population of one crore. It is a staggering size to deal with. The high volume of calls means that if the lines are busy, the caller will have to wait for his/her turn. They get to hear educative messages instead of the standard busy tone or ‘You-are-in-the-queue’ message.”

The officer is puzzled as to how “our people will wait for hours in a line to buy something or listen to recorded messages while waiting to interact with someone during a phone banking transaction, but they cannot wait for a few seconds to get an emergency operator on the line. Have patience,” says ACP Shankar. “I am not Superman; I cannot help anyone in 60 secs. Nobody can.”

Delivering emergency services is both a technology and a people business. Given the limited funds, the Bangalore Police has established a state-of-the-art emergency helpline. A few weeks ago, they also installed a tracking facility to monitor the Hoysalas that are dispatched after an emergency call. Technology sets things up, but the people have to deliver for it to be a success. Effective call taking and dispatching are critical to the success of an emergency system.

911, the gold standard of emergency helplines, ensures that their staff receive training and certification. Dial 100 is modelled after 911. Ironically, all 911 operators are civilians. Whereas all 100 operators are women police officers. “It is police work, we cannot bring in the common man,” says ACP Shankar. A statement that is not decipherable to the common man.

911 operators receive training in CPR from the American Heart Association, emergency medical dispatch, stress management, how to deal with suicidal callers, domestic situations, communication skills and others. It is a 12-week training course which includes six weeks of in service training.

100 operators received training from Infosys on communication skills. It was a one-time training. “The older staffs pass on their learning to the newcomers,” says ACP Shankar.

Many years ago, one of the helpline operators received a call for help from a man. “I am being chased by goons with machetes,” he said. The operator asked for his location. He revealed his destination and said it was closer to a police station. “Instead of calling 100, why don’t you rush to the police station, which is near you. You will be saved,” she said. The man did. The operator thought her common sense saved the day; she didn’t notify the authorities. She was later suspended by the commissioner for dereliction of duty.

Around the world, it is imperative that an emergency helpline operator receive training in handling both emergency and non-emergency calls and local geography and technology. The over-stretched Bangalore police can look at public-police partnership in the area of providing skills-training for the helpline operators. Ready access to the helpline and skillful operators are what the public is asking for.

The Bangalore helpline has the technology and the people. They just need to find a way to marry the two. Till then you will have taxpaying citizens like Kumari saying: “I have learnt my lesson. If you need URGENT help call your neighbour or even a stranger, but never the police helpline.”

‘Help us to help you’
Uday Shankar, ACP, Police control room

There is a lot of power in the word ‘Okay’. We are okay with the praises and with the criticisms. We try to deliver the best, given all the challenges and limitations. This is probably the first control room in Asia that is operated entirely by women. Each five hour shift is packed with calls – about 10,000 calls are received each day.

Once 100 is dialled, the service provider company recognises the number and routes it to any of the control room’s two PRI (Primary Rate Interface) lines. As soon as the call is answered, time starts ticking. All information including location is taken carefully by the responder. A docket number is given for further updates. Once the call is finished, the control room passes on the information to the nearest Hoysala or police station. This too is recorded