Caller: 'Help me, I can't find Homebase.' 999: "This isn't life or death is it, madam?'

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Most of us hope that we will never have to call 999. But if we do, there is a team of people taking your calls who remain calm under even the greatest of pressures.

Most of us hope that we will never have to call 999. But if we do, there is a team of people taking your calls who remain calm under even the greatest of pressures.Jemma Walton paid a visit to Cambridgeshire Police's nerve centre – and heard all about the people who have no qualms whatsoever about ringing the emergency services.

SOME people are just stupid, aren't they? We all have our mad moments, but some people take the biscuit as far as daftness is concerned.And nowhere is sheer human idiocy highlighted more sharply than in a medium size room in a leafy corner of Huntingdon.

That room, in Cambridgeshire Constabulary headquarters, in Hinchingbrooke Park, is where all the 999 calls for Cambridge, Peterborough, Huntingdonshire and Fenland are taken.

"Some 80 per cent of the calls we get here are non-emergency," said force control room manager chief inspector Mike Winters, raising his eyebrows. "Which means only 20 per cent of them are emergencies."

Control room recordings operator and dispatcher Chas Davies has compiled a CD of the timewaster calls, and they make for worrying, if hilarious, listening.

Hilarious because the callers are so dim, worrying because they are taking up valuable time which could be spent talking to people who really need it – people who have been mugged, stabbed, burgled, or raped.

One woman with a plummy accent called because she was trying to get to Homebase, couldn't find it, and was extremely upset.

"I'm in Huntingdon, looking for Homebase and I can't find it. Who can I call?" she simpered down the phone.

"Homebase?", the 999 operator responded. "This isn't a life or death situation, is it madam?"

"No – but I am very distressed. I have been driving around looking for it, and I can't find it. I am nearly in tears."

"Well this isn't the kind of thing you should be calling 999 for."

"I suppose so – sorry. Goodbye."

That woman must have needed a garden bench or fan heater pretty badly.

Another woman phoned 999 to ask for Tony Blair's phone number so he could tell him that he is her "sort of chap". She hung up after a two-minute chat, complaining that she couldn't get any sense out of the 999 operator.

Another rung to ask what the date was, while another really, really needed to know how she could top up her mobile phone credit.

Calls from nitwits are nothing new to Chas, who said that 999 operators have to be as polite as possible, and also have to sometimes talk to odd callers while checking their details on the police system, to see whether they are vulnerable, and might need someone to go and check that they're OK. Some people are just prank callers," he said. "A lot of them don't seem to realise that if they call 999 a lot with stupid calls they can have their mobiles scrambled."

It is Chas's job to take 999 calls, and he also dispatches officers to jobs, as well as putting together sections from 999 calls which can be used in evidence in court.

"Nothing shocks me any more," he said. "When you've spent 20 years in the police, particularly in the traffic section, there isn't much you haven't seen or heard."

Next page: Life in the 999 centre isn't all funny phone calls.Life in the 999 centre isn't all funny phone calls. It is literally the front line of the police service, the first point of call for anyone experiencing life or death situations.

The operators working there have to be mentally sharp, able to take calls patiently and politely and talk to people in the worst imaginable circumstances.

"The worst call I have had to take was from a man in his 70s who had shot his wife," said control room tutor operator Val Matthews. "I had to keep him talking, asking him to put the gun outside the house. If he had stopped talking he might have killed himself, and so I had to just keep on going until the police got there."

But does she never get upset by what she hears?

"I cut myself off from the calls emotionally," she said. "I don't know the people involved, and so I don't let what they are telling me affect me.

"There was one call, though, three years ago, when there was a road traffic collision on the A1, where a lorry went into the back of a car and killed a mum and her two kids. Calls like that are difficult to deal with, but you just have to or else you couldn't do the job – and it is an interesting, very valuable one.

On a fairly quiet day the call room will receive about 350 999 calls, on a busy day that will go up to 600-plus. At certain times, such as Friday and Saturday nights, the number of calls will peak as people start drinking and getting into trouble.

Peterborough is the toughest area to deal with as there is "high demand in a very concentrated area," said Chief Inspector Winters. "There are community issues around immigration which cause tension and aren't present in somewhere like Whittlesey.

"But then everywhere has its challenges – cycle theft is rife in Cambridge, for example. And further into the fens there can be problems between immigrants and travellers, with immigrants taking a lot of the jobs which were traditionally done by travellers."

The police get at least 20 calls to reports of domestic violence in Peterborough every day, and that figure goes up even more on a Sunday, when a man might have a sore head from the night before, or have gone to the pub before coming home for his Sunday roast – and row.

"Those calls are always the worst," said Chief Inspector Winters. "A woman can be screaming and very upset, and it's a very difficult situation to have to deal with. And we do get an awful lot of calls relating to domestics, which we always respond positively to, because we recognise the extra dimension that comes with those calls.

"We know that by the time a woman calls the police she might have been assaulted several times before. And by the time officers get there, she might be scared of what will happen to her when her partner realises that she's called the police, and so might get angry at the officers, or not want them there."And so the officers act according to what they see before them. It doesn't matter if the woman makes a complaint or not, it is up to the officers to judge the situation."

The 999 centre looks a lot like a double glazing firm's call centre, apart from the fact that there are uniformed police officers taking some of the calls – 15 per cent of the staff there are police officers, 85 per cent are support staff.

But the work they do couldn't be more different. Working in the police's control centre is one of the most demanding and emotionally draining 'desk' jobs you can imagine.

And one that definitely isn't made any easier by numpties demanding directions to Homebase.