We need a strong national emergency service

At a time when everyone is talking about making the national emergency helpline more efficient, so that more people can get emergency help as soon as possible, we learned that a family from the Jatrabari area in Dhaka was tortured by the police after asking for help. by calling 999 (The Daily Star, April 17, 2022). The incident will no doubt discourage people from calling the emergency helpline. Although the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) suspended three police officers following the incident and recommended departmental action against the Ansar member involved, the episode definitely called into question the effectiveness of this emergency service.

We would like to believe that this is an isolated incident and in no way represents the services provided by the police in emergency situations. However, the service is riddled with a host of issues that need to be addressed in the future.

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The helpline, 999 – a toll-free number that allows citizens in difficulty to call and seek help from the police, fire or ambulance services in the event of an emergency – was officially launched on December 12, 2017. As of January 31 this year, the helpline has received over 35.3 million calls. The number is impressive, but were all these calls really made to ask for help from the service? The answer is no. According to National Helpline Center sources, approximately 67.44% of calls made during this period were either empty calls, prank calls, missed calls, test calls or repeat calls.

Who are these people making these calls, creating unnecessary congestion in the system? According to the helpline operators, in most cases these calls are made by teenagers. According to a helpline operator, sometimes teenagers call and say, for example, that there is a fire somewhere, which later turns out to be a hoax. According to a report by this daily, the helpline received around 164,000 calls from teenagers in 2020, which increased to 235,000 calls last year. This would be one of the biggest obstacles to providing support to people in real distress.

The next question is, did the remaining 32.56% of callers receive help from the service? The answer to this question is also a resounding no. Why? Because the majority of callers had no idea what kind of services the helpline actually provides. According to reports, callers often complain about rising prices for basic necessities, seek information on Covid-19 vaccines or make random queries to troubleshoot problems with their cellphones.

In addition, helpline operators often have to deal with abusive comments and questions from callers, as this daily reports.

The problems mentioned above are mainly due to people’s lack of awareness about the nature and sensitivity of the hotline. It seems strange that the authorities have not been able to take the necessary steps in more than four years of operation to inform people of the services available through the helpline. It should not have been difficult for them to educate ordinary people about the importance of this vital service, as the news and social media could have been used for this purpose.

Apart from these issues, there are other issues that prevent the hotline from being upgraded to international standards. One of them is slow response time. Apparently, while the average response time for unit 999 in Bangladesh is around 20 minutes, it is only seven minutes in countries like the US, UK, and Japan. This is because the helpline’s operating system is outdated and there is also a shortage of manpower. Currently, everything from locating service requesters, to communicating with the various service providers, to assigning a team to assist callers, is done manually, which is not only time consuming, but makes also the inefficient service.

So, to make the helpline more efficient, there is no alternative to installing an automatic caller identification and location system, which can instantly locate the exact address of the caller. a caller and dramatically reduce response time. Why this has not yet been done, despite repeated assurances from the authorities, no one can guess.

The helpline currently receives approximately 30,000 calls per day, which is difficult to accommodate with its existing workforce. While the unit must have the capacity to take at least 500 calls at a time, it currently only has the capacity to take 100 calls. Therefore, for the system to work properly, more manpower needs to be recruited for the service.

After the helpline was introduced in 2017, we encountered several cases of successful intervention through its use. We learned how Chattogram police prevented a child marriage after receiving a 999 call (The Daily Star, December 14, 2017). In another incident in 2018, a ferry carrying 300 passengers on the Padma River was saved from sinking when one of the passengers called 999 for help. Another example is the rescue operation carried out last year to save the lives of 13 fishermen stranded in the Bay of Bengal for five days.

The hotline can really make a big difference in a society like ours, as it can not only be used to save lives, but also to fight crime. Just think of how we can reduce the number of child marriages to zero with just one call from one of us ordinary citizens. Therefore, the authorities concerned must redouble their efforts to make the helpline a solid and efficient service that can help citizens in times of need.

Naznin Tithi is a member of the editorial team of the Daily Star.

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