Dream of single emergency number dies

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The Department of Communications (DoC) is to close down its R80 million pilot single-number emergency call centre a month before the FIFA soccer World Cup, leaving in tatters a ten year dream to establish a single national three-digit emergency number similar to the US “911”. At present there are a number of longer five-digit numbers for the police and other emergency services.

Dr Cleeve Robertson, director of the Metro Emergency Medical Services (EMS), in the Western Cape, told ITWeb the project started with plans for a national call centre system in 1999.
“The Telecommunications Act had been amended to have 112 as the national emergency number. But then there has been a long delay in any kind of process to implement the number. The pilot centre at the Strand was built and it has been stuck in pilot mode for the last four years.”

He says the tenders for establising two national centres was never awarded, despite five consortia putting forward bids. “Then there was just silence for the last year. Nobody has been saying anything.”

The number “112” is currently being by cellular service providers as their emergency number.

Robertson says the closure of the pilot centre at the Strand, near Somerset West, was confirmed by the manager in a meeting with the EMS. “I wrote a personal letter to the deputy minister of communications and [received] no reply. There has been no official notice or message or correspondence from the Department of Communications. They are just not accountable,” says Robertson.

Despite numerous attempts to get comment, the DOC did not respond to ITWeb’s queries regarding the proposed 112 centres and whether there is an alternative plan for handling emergency calls.
“It is now a month away from the World Cup and there is no official national emergency number,” says Robertson.

He explains that even without the large influx of people expected during the soccer tournament, there is already a huge delay when people call and it can get chaotic with people calling the wrong number, unsure of what the official one is. “A national emergency number is fundamental. For now, we have rerouted calls from the centres to us through Telkom.”

But official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party’s shadow minister of police Dianne Kohler Barnard says creating the 112 call centres as an alternative to the South African Police Services (SAPS) 10111 centres wasn’t a logical plan. “How is the public supposed to know about this number? Why try out a pilot for another centre when the 10111 centre simply doesn’t work? Why create another number? I find it very bizarre that they would just try another number.”

She adds that it is not a good idea to put money into another number, when millions have already been put into the 10111 version that is failing. “My thought is that whatever money – and I will immediately put through a parliamentary question to the minister on the cost of this 112 project – was spent on this pilot should have been spent on upgrading the 10111 call centres, so that citizens who had emergencies could actually have their calls answered.”

Robertson says the 112 pilot centre cost about R80 million. “It took about R40 million to build it and for the IT, and the other R40 million went into paying the staff over the last few years. And now nothing is materialising. “I suspect that the delay in getting a national emergency number implemented is finance-related. But what is that compared to the cost of a life?”

He adds that the high costs are due to the DOC’s plan to build new centres, but Robertson feels there is no need for this. He blames the DOC’s financial model and says there are existing centres that could have been used.

Millions went into the 10111 emergency centres as well. These centres overspent their budgets, according to police minister Nathi Mthethwa. Late last year, Mthethwa revealed the majority of the centres had spent above their allocated budgets for two financial years. In the 2006/7 financial year, the centres received budget allocations totalling R15.3 million, but spent a total of R18.9 million. In the following financial year, they underspent their R22 million budget. In the 2008/9 financial year, the centres spent R34 million, having been allocated only R29 million.

The Cape EMS has called for the implementation of a centralised emergency number (112) because responses from the 10111 centres were delayed and not always reliable. “People feel safe in their homes because they know they can call 10111, but when you do call the chances of actually getting through to an SAPS member are very slim,” says Kohler Barnard.

Parliament, the emergency services, the auditor-general and the public have also slammed the 10111 centres for being ineffective and rendering SAPS services futile. All commented that, despite using systems which digitally track the response of each police vehicle and record all communication with the caller, the police have continuously failed to improve on service delivery.

In response to a DA parliamentary question last year, the minister of police revealed the nationwide average response time to calls made to these centres is 42 minutes. “Services have delayed response times, which could result in people dying. There is poor co-ordination between services. Incidents get managed poorly and services over-respond, which is expensive,” says EMS spokesperson Anzelle Smit.

The 112 agents were meant to direct calls to the relevant emergency services – irrespective of where they are in the country. This would have allowed South African citizens to dial “112”, toll-free on any telecommunications device, to access a range of emergency services, instead of having to remember numbers for each one.



Pic: A view of the police Gauteng 10111 contact centre in Midrand.