THE state's Police Assistance Line, based in Ballarat, received a record number of calls in April, as the service assisted with the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
While the community uptake in calling the non-emergency line was initially slow, last month the service recorded a 30 per cent increase in calls as people reported coronavirus breaches.
The Police Assistance Line (PAL) and accompanying online reporting platform was established in July 2019.
Tucked away in the Flecknoe Building on Albert Street, dozens of civilian call takers, assisted by a team of Victoria Police members, field general police inquiries from across the state and file reports about non-urgent crimes 24 hours a day.
In charge of the police members is Inspector Steve Towers, who is a former member of the police's motorcycle and water police units.
A police officer of more than 40 years, he oversees a team of four Senior Sergeants and 26 Sergeants. These police officers assist contracted call takers with the work.
While it was established as a means for the community to more easily report and receive information in relation to non-urgent matters, PAL took on a new function during both the unprecedented bushfires earlier this year, as well as during the coronavirus pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, PAL call takers would receive about 2500 calls a day ranging from general inquiries to requests to make a report regarding a range of crimes such as theft - including of and from cars - to lost property, property damage, noise complaints and neighbourhood disputes.
Last month, calls to PAL reached a record high as community members rushed to report breaches of the Chief Health Officer's directions - put in place to limit the spread of coronavirus - to police.
While in March PAL received 70,983 calls, in April the number jumped to 102,034 calls.
Taking on the job, Inspector Towers saw an opportunity for PAL to be more than just a means to deal with non-urgent crime.
This opportunity was realised during the bushfires, when PAL staff were given the responsibility to record the details of about 7000 residents who wanted to return to their homes at Mallacoota.
"It was a big test for us. It tested our staffing arrangements as we also continued taking crime reports - we had to do both," he said.
Soon after, staff at PAL began to take calls about coronavirus breaches. Even though the focus was on reports about businesses breaching restrictions, people who were meant to be self-isolating and mass gatherings, the phone lines were inundated with people wanting to make reports.
While the line had been receiving about 3500 calls a day beforehand, in the week leading up to Easter - when strict stage 3 restrictions were in force - the phones did not stop ringing, with call takers inundated with around 11,500 calls one particular day.
The majority of these calls were to report breaches, but the spike in calls was far beyond the centre's capacity even though extra staff had been recruited in late March.
The Australian Defence Force, who had offered assistance through the bushfires, again offered to pitch in. Knowing they could be quickly trained, 12 ADF members were brought on board for five weeks to assist the Sergeants to take calls regarding breaches.
Even though extra staff were brought in to assist with the spike in calls, some callers were forced to wait on hold for long periods for several consecutive days.
It was a lesson learned, with measures since been put in place to more effectively deal with emergencies going forward.
Inspector Towers said staff had played a critical role in reporting information back to the Department of Health and Human Services and Victoria's state police operation centre during the pandemic, with the information passed on to tasking units to attend addresses.
Any breaches requiring immediate police assistance were diverted to 000, so a unit could be dispatched immediately.
We like to think we were part of the whole process to make sure Victorians stayed safe, that people doing the wrong thing were given a ticket and that we contributed to the low numbers and the recent lifting of some restrictions by people being aware that if they did the wrong thing, then police would knock at the doorInspector Steve Towers
"We like to think we were part of the whole process to make sure Victorians stayed safe, that people doing the wrong thing were given a ticket and that we contributed to the low numbers and the recent lifting of some restrictions by people being aware that if they did the wrong thing, then police would knock at the door," he said.
While still in its infancy and many of the calls picked up are for general inquiries or calls which are redirected, PAL has taken about 112,000 minor crime reports since it was established last year.
Of all crime reports made to police, PAL has taken about 51 per cent, with the other 49 per cent filed through police stations.
The aim is for PAL to take closer to 80 per cent.
While it is located in the heart of Ballarat, Inspector Towers said the number of reports filed through PAL from across the region was not higher than in any other area.
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Admitting the move to PAL was a big change for the community - especially older generations - to adapt to and reports made through the online platform had seen a particularly slow uptake, Inspector Towers said agencies were looking at ways to ameliorate this.
A chat bot is one idea being considered to make the process of online reporting smoother, for example.
However, Inspector Towers said PAL made the process of reporting minor crimes much easier for community members.
Most calls are answered within three minutes, with a report promptly taken and a copy then sent to the caller via email, as well as to the appropriate police unit.
"For me, it's a two way street - it's giving the community that ability to have the phone answered straight away when they need some assistance from the police, and getting a better and faster service.
"Rather than walking into a police station and waiting in a queue, or waiting on hold for the police station, the community can quickly make a report through PAL," he said.
"They can then get back to work or to their life and get their insurance payout or whatever else they need."
Calls can also be taken from people for whom English is a second language, as interpreters can be brought on the line within a matter of minutes.
Another major benefit is that it frees up the 000 emergency line, as well as time for front-line police.
Having the Police Assistance Line frees up 000 for real emergencies and also frees up police stations to deal with more serious crime, so they can deal with emergencies and spend that time catching offenders.Inspector Steve Towers
"Having the Police Assistance Line frees up 000 for real emergencies and also frees up police stations to deal with more serious crime, so they can deal with emergencies and spend that time catching offenders," Inspector Towers said.'
Inspector Towers said PAL's 250 odd phone lines could continue to be used in response to various emergencies, with a flex queue already in the works to prepare the centre for the possibility of another major event.
"We're new and we're still learning, but we want to be flexible," Inspector Towers said.
"These are the things we've had that foresight to think about, not just to use PAL for minor crime but there are other things, like in emergencies, floods and fire, that we can be used for too."
Working at PAL
Acting Senior Sergeant Tony Creanor started as a Sergeant working on the floor, assisting the call takers and their team leaders, but in December last year was upgraded to the Senior Sergeant role to assist with day-to-day operations at PAL.
A member of Victoria Police for 18 years, he currently oversees the training and development for Victoria Police and contracted call takers.
Prior to joining the team at PAL, he spent 11 years at the Highway Patrol but wanted to try something completely different.
"It's been a good learning curve for me personally, being at the Police Assistance Line," he said.
"First being able to come in from the ground level and help set the system in motion, given that it's a completely new environment for Victoria Police, and assisting in developing the system and getting it up and running has been a great challenge.
"But personally coming from operation policing into a project like this has been a great opportunity."
Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Lisa Neville, said PAL was an invaluable resource.
"Our Police Assistance Line is an invaluable resource, and I want to thank Victorians for using it to notify police when people are disobeying the directives of the Chief Health Officer.
"The PAL continues to ensure we're well placed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and gives Victorians easy access to a service they've never needed to use before," Ms Neville said.
"We hope people will continue to embrace the PAL to report non-urgent crime into the future."
Always use 000 to report an emergency situation, when a response with lights and sirens is required.
Community members can continue to call with inquiries, report non-urgent crime or breaches of the Chief Health Officer's directions by calling the Police Assistance Line on 131 444 or submitting an online report at www.police.vic.gov.au/palolr