Police call handlers faced major IT problems, fatal accident inquiry told
Call centre manager Laura Henderson said IT systems often ‘disconnected calls’, the inquiry into the deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell heard.
Police Scotland call handlers spent more than half their time battling IT issues as morale hit “rock bottom” after a merger, a fatal accident inquiry (FAI) heard.
Call centre manager Laura Henderson, 47, gave evidence to the FAI into the deaths of John Yuill, 28, and Lamara Bell, 25, who crashed off the M9 on July 5 2015.
The couple’s car was undiscovered for three days despite being reported, and Ms Bell later died in hospital.
In 2015, call centres in Glenrothes, Fife, and Stirling merged causing job cuts, prompting a desperate bid to recruit at Bilston Glen, Midlothian, which was plunged into chaos amid a staffing crisis and a reliance on “overtime temps”, the inquiry heard.
“Assumptions” were made about training, the inquiry was told, and “huge and distinct” differences in working practices between the east and west of Scotland presented additional challenges with no national guidance issued.
An officer who volunteered said staff appeared “surprised” to see him, and in June there were 52 job vacancies.
Mrs Henderson joined Bilston Glen in March 2015 and said staff spent 65% of the time battling with “nightmare” IT systems.
In April, the situation was “critical” leading to the formation of a Gold group, and morale was “rock bottom” in May, the FAI heard.
Minutes from a Gold group meeting projected on a screen showed 900 calls were abandoned in the week of April 22.
Mrs Henderson, who joined Fife Constabulary in 1998, said in written evidence that the IT system Aspire “failed regularly” and often froze or disconnected calls.
She said: “Every element was underdeveloped. It wasn’t what I expected it to be. I didn’t think it would be as bad.”
She described “a state of disarray” and “issues with all aspects”, including “different ways of working between east and west”, and “insufficient guidance materials”, before temporary officers from Glasgow arrived in May 2015.
She said: “Aspire was beset and beleaguered with technical issues including frequent freezing and disconnection of calls. It was a nightmare. There were problems with Aspire or Storm on 65% of days.”
Solutions proposed included secondment, overtime and a recruitment campaign, as well as mentoring, the inquiry heard.
Chief Inspector Andy McDowall said he believed the criteria for “overtime temps” was CRM/Aspire training – but admitted this was an “assumption”.
In a statement, he said: “I am now aware this criteria is not formally documented.
“I do not know why the temporary staff were not trained in CRM/Aspire when it was used in Bilston Glen on a daily basis.
“I had no reason to believe that this training system was not being delivered in Bilston Glen. I was aware this was being delivered in Glasgow.”
But Mrs Henderson said she had never seen a “memo, operational order or similar type document” which specified that requirement.
She also said she did not know what training was being done in Glasgow.
In a written statement, Mrs Henderson said: “Do I wish I had taken on more responsibility? Yes, if I had the time? I would have involved myself directly in ensuring the training to be given to the non-core overtime staff was clear and understood by all.”
In May 2015, morale was said to be “rock bottom”, and the FAI heard there was concern about the volume of disconnected calls.
A report from Chief Superintendent Alan Speirs said: “Time taken to answer incoming calls was poor with high instances of calls being discontinued.
“It was also apparent this matter had not been escalated and no resolution plans put in place.”
Mrs Henderson told the inquiry: “The staff didn’t always have the skills they needed on day-to-day basis. They didn’t have confidence in what they were supposed to do. Team leaders were unfamiliar with new systems.”
Inspector Michaela Kerr described chaotic working environments at Bilston Glen and said Mrs Henderson told her she felt “unsupported and overwhelmed” in April 2015 at the service centre.
A briefing paper from May 8, shown to the inquiry, said Unison was “critical of backfilling vacancies with non-core officers particularly when there had previously been redundancies”.
The inquiry continues.