Diverting emergencies

By GovTechReview Staff
Friday, 25 March, 2011

Diverting emergencies

The triple zero emergency call is taught to kids from a young age and, thanks to its wonderful simplicity, is easy to remember. But in Queensland it has sometimes proved too memorable, as very few 000 calls are genuine emergencies.

“There’s chronic misuse of 000. Just four percent of calls are what we classify as genuinely urgent,” says Acting Superintendent Greg Flint, who manages the Queensland Police Service’s (QPS’) Policelink call centre operation. “The others are not what we’d call priority policy response. Giving a clear choice between urgent and non-urgent has an advantage in servicing 000 calls properly.”

To address this issue, Queensland’s Policelink project was designed to line up with a nationwide initiative to introduce a second number – 131 444 – that members of the public will be encouraged to use when they wish to contact police about matters that require police notification, but don’t necessarily require an urgent response or an actual visit by an officer. Typical examples include vehicle theft or property damage.

“Apart from improved client service, there are significant benefits to operational staff,” Flint says. “By allowing the public to report direct a range of primarily property-related crimes, we do have a significant saving in operational hours.”

130 officers back on the beat

As that comment suggests, one key metric for measuring the value of the call centre is fairly straightforward. Reducing the number of call-outs for minor incidents has a direct impact on availability for critical tasks. “We’re predicting we’ll save 260,000 operational police hours annually by changing the contact centre mix,” Flint says. QPS estimates that as the equivalent of 130 full-time police on active duty.

Nonetheless, calculating the operational benefits and planning for the centre was a time-consuming process. “We did a comprehensive review of the way we handle contacts from the public, both urgent and non-urgent, and we’ve benchmarked ourselves against other states, and against operations in the UK and US, in terms of coming up with a good business model for alternative delivery options to the community,” Flint says.

The concept of a centralised call centre has been considered since 1998, and active planning for the deployment began in 2005. “The restructure we undertook involved merging three business functions and the staff from those business units coming together,” Flint says.

Policelink is based in a purpose-built building, the Dandiiri Contact Centre, in Zillmere in Brisbane’s north. The Policelink centre occupies half of the centre, while the remainder is used by Shared Services Queensland (SSQ). The development of the site was handled jointly between the Department of Public Works, SSQ and QPS. QPS took the lead in planning the IT infrastructure for the site, though SSQ runs its own entirely separate suite of applications.

Constructing a building from scratch enabled the facility to gain six-star green certification from the Green Building Council of Australia. As well as meeting government mandates for ensuring environmental sustainability, that approach had a number of other benefits.

One was ensuring the site was accessible through a range of transport options, with a connecting walkway to the nearest train station, secure parking so that late-shift workers would feel comfortable driving their cars and lockable areas for storing bicycles all features of the building. “All those little things add together to make it a really great facility,” Flint says, which is handy in attracting and retaining staff in the competitive, high-turnover, contact centre market. The energy-saving features of the site – including an emphasis on natural light, sensors to activate lighting and heating, and the use of chiller beam cooling systems – also create a more pleasant working environment.

Training areas on the site are designed so that they can be opened up onto the main operating floor, helping trainees feel more integrated into the overall working environment. The training spaces can also be converted into emergency command centres.

An additional 170 staff were employed once the project was up to speed. Of the 370 staff now working for Policelink, 23 are sworn-in sergeants, who can make operational decisions for more complex issues (typically, two or three work on any shift). The majority of calls are answered within 30 seconds, and the centre operates 24 hours a day, though the peak of activity is between 2pm and 6pm on weekdays.

Integration challenges

The Policelink operation serves a dual purpose. As well as taking calls from members of the public, which incorporate general enquiries and specific incident reports, it also takes reports from police officers, ensuring that data collected on the beat is directly entered into the main QPRIME system. That reduces the amount of paperwork officers have to perform and also ensures that data is immediately accessible to all parts of the police service.

“All the detail goes into our back-end records management system so it’s immediately available to operational staff. At the conclusion of the phone call, that information is available state-wide,” Flint says.

As part of a whole-of-government initiative promoting IT virtualisation, the QPRIME system and associated technologies are operated using a highly virtualised environment, with thin client technology for individual workers and the majority of data and processing operations handled at the dedicated CITEC and Polaris data centres. The systems used by Policelink use 56 virtual servers running on VMWare 4.1 infrastructure, according to principal IT officer Dave Rogers. The data centres also incorporate an EMC SAN for additional backup capabilities.

While QPRIME serves as the data repository, the Policelink project includes a range of other technology, including a base telecom platform from Alcatel; call routing systems from Genesys; workflow management and call recording systems from Nice; and a custom-developed CRM system developed by Sword Ciboodle. All of those systems have to integrate with the existing QPRIME infrastructure.

“QPRIME is our single point of truth for QPS,” Flint says. “One of our business and technical mandates was not to create another silo of data. The CRM acts as a critical interface with QPrime and provides the workflow structures and business rules.”

Dimension Data was appointed as the prime integrator for the project, and also manages the telephony services contract with Telstra, which encompasses access to multiple exchanges for redundancy. With a complex mix of systems involved, Flint was keen to ensure that there was a single partner responsible for overall implementation.

“We did that deliberately because we wanted to hold someone accountable for the telephony workforce optimisation suite. Otherwise we’d be in a position where we’d have four or five different vendors to deal with.”

“Part of our role was to make sure integration through to Sword and Nice was all coming to a single place,” said Patrick Kirby, southern region customer interactive solutions practice manager for Dimension Data. “We took quite a flexible project methodology. You’ve got so many players in there, sometimes it can be difficult to get them all in a line.” Dimension Data is the first point of contact for all tech support issues in the centre.

“We did spend an enormous amount of time defining our business processes and requirements, and I think that paid dividends for us in the end,” Flint says. “There was always going to be a higher level risk around the Sword Ciboodle implementation, configuring the CRM around QPS workflow structures. We chose the defined integrator path, so that’s how we mitigated the risk of that side of the implementation, and we ended up with a fairly good outcome.”

The deal with Telstra also includes access to a cloud-based replica of the Genesys infrastructure used for call routing. “If we want to change routing rules, we have the capability to do that during surge events. In those ‘avalanche’ conditions, it lets us have prioritisation of services from a specific geographic area.”

What’s next?

The centre was opened in May 2010, and was fully operational by October that year. A major publicity campaign was launched to promote the existence of the 131 444 option in August, which also carries the Policelink brand. The centre is currently handling 80,000 calls a month, split between calls from the public and internal police users.

“We’ve got a very strong push for online services, so we want to be able to be offering online reporting for the pubic and service email and fax channels in an integrated way, so that was a heavy emphasis in our overall business plan,” Flint says.

Those additional online services should roll out this year. “We’re trying to consolidate the telephony space first before we get greedy.” A full-scale operational review is scheduled for mid-year. “We’re doing an overall systems health check. You can always improve technology and the associated performance, and we’re keen to have a continuous improvement program. From that health check, that’s what will drive and underpin our future enhancement strategy approach.”

Despite the planned changes and improvements, the central vision for the centre hasn’t shifted, Flint says. “We believe the single biggest thing is giving the community a clear option. Before this, as opposed to ringing 000, someone would have had to go to the phone book or search for the local police station number. Now we can clearly differentiate.”

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