Have you ever wondered who is on the other end of a 199 emergency call? Meet Police Constable Tom Risso, one of the RGP's most experienced Control Room officers and get an insight into his role on the invisible frontline and why he loves the job.
It’s one of the most high-pressured jobs in the Royal Gibraltar Police force.
On an average day, Command and Dispatch (CAD) officers will receive several hundred calls in the Control Room between them – many of them 199 emergencies.
These calls can be about anything from a domestic argument or a serious road traffic accident, to concerns for someone’s mental health or a fight involving weapons.
Working in CAD, they have to dispatch the appropriate officer(s), often making quick decisions, to the callers who are most in need of help.
This is while they assess all other incidents waiting for police attendance and make sure the risks involved are not increasing.
PC Tom Risso is one of over a dozen specially trained CAD officers, who man the Control Room 24 hours a day.
He joined the RGP 20 years ago at the age of 28, and has spent the last seven years as a dedicated Command and Dispatch officer.
Tom, 48, who has a degree in Mechanical Engineering, said: “We get all sorts of emergency calls. But what might not be an emergency to me, as I’ve been here for 20 years, can be an emergency for the caller.
“I’ve had everything from someone’s leaking washing machine, where they don’t know how to switch it off and it’s flooding the house, to a serious fire, to someone who wants to commit suicide.
“The regular calls we get are of fights or disturbances, or alcohol related incidents with people getting aggressive.”
So what skills do officers need to become a CAD officer, according to Tom?
The dad of one, who worked for Oesco before he joined the police, explained: “You have to have a good memory and be able to juggle several different problems at the same time. You might not be dealing exclusively with one call, you might be dealing with two or three things at the same time. So you can’t drop the ball. You need to know Gibraltar quite well. For example, some of the new officers might not know a location they are being sent to, so you have to direct them. Also, you have to warn the new ones, which individuals have a history of violence and are likely to kick-off, as it might be the first time they have dealt with someone who is very aggressive. “It helps if you can speak Spanish, but if one controller can’t, normally the other controller can. If we need to contact the Guardia Civil, normally I do it on my shift.”
Tom, who works with Response Team 4, added that they sometimes have to call the Spanish authorities, such as Salvamento Maritimo, regarding illegal immigrants, or in relation to traffic accidents in Spain involving Gibraltar plated vehicles, as the Spanish police will call the Control Room.
As for the scariest incidents he’s had to deal with, he said: “I hate when someone calls up and tells me they want to kill themselves. You have to try and keep them on the phone and try and find out where they are, so you can dispatch officers. I had one where they said ‘I’m now tying a rope around my neck and leaning forward trying to kill myself.’ With those phone calls, they don’t tell you straight away where they are.
“I have a great feeling of relief when we manage to find out where they are and the officers are able to get to them. That’s probably the part of the job that I am most proud of.
“The other calls I hate is when someone phones up, then suddenly they scream and the phone goes dead – and you can’t get them back on the phone. And you still haven’t got a location of where they are. It could be that the person that’s assaulted them has realised they’re calling the police and has taken the phone off them.
“It makes me feel uneasy. You can’t calm down until you find out where they are. Unfortunately, it’s not like you see on CSI when you type in the telephone number on the computer and it tells you their exact location to get officers there within 5 minutes. You just don’t know where they are.”
Another type of call that is becoming increasingly common in recent months, are those from illegal immigrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar.
Tom said: “They tend to talk in broken Spanish, but you can’t always understand them or where they are. When this happens we contact our Marine Section to go looking for them and Windmill Hill Station, to see if they can spot anything on the cameras. Most of those who call up think they are calling Spain. What happens is everyone calls 112, which is the international emergency number. But if you are out at sea and you get caught by the Gibtelecom signal, it comes to us, rather than the Spanish police.
“Normally, we pass these calls to a Moroccan officer on shift. But once years ago, we didn’t have a Moroccan speaker. So I passed the phone to our Moroccan cleaner and asked her what they were saying, she told me in Spanish. It’s not professional perhaps, but at least we found out what they were screaming down the phone and where they were.”
As for the busiest time of the week, it’s perhaps not surprising.
Tom said: “Definitely Friday nights, but the last few weeks it’s been busy every day. One of the Wednesday nights we were busy until 4am. Then the following night shift it kicked off at 2 in the morning and didn’t calm down until 6am. That was an assault involving several people.
“Typically, Friday and Saturday nights we are busy with noise complaints and youths misbehaving or being in certain areas or estates. But now it’s the summer, it can be busy any night really.”
Something that the public might not be aware of, is that the CAD officers also monitor dozens of CCTV cameras in the Control Room – and often catch criminals in the act.
Tom explained: “I would say it happens more during the night shift when things are quieter and you can spot someone on the camera doing something suspicious. So we keep an eye on them, or see them running away from an area and follow them on the cameras.”
In the Control Room, a grading system for calls is used to help CAD officers deal with the most important incidents. Calls are graded 1 to 4.
Tom explained: “Grade 1 is an emergency, such as a serious fight or car accident, which requires a six minute response. Grade 2 is still an emergency, but without anyone in imminent danger, and requires a one hour response. Grade 3, could be something like a report of a dented car, which we have to respond to in five days, but we usually sort out much quicker. And for Grade 4, this does not require an officer’s attendance, and is more for Intelligence purposes, such as members of the public reporting antisocial behaviour in certain areas.”
It’s important to note that CAD officers will often direct more senior officers who are on the ground, such as Sergeants and Inspectors, as they have a clearer picture of what is going on during an incident.
And when asked what Tom enjoys most about working in the Control Room, he replied: “I like the multi-tasking and doing several things at once with your fingers in all the pies. It’s managing the resources as best you can and getting people to jobs as quick as possible, whilst keeping both the public and your officers safe.
“Then you have the mundane things, such as dealing with and monitoring the frontier queues. But what I dislike most is that you are stuck inside the Control Room. If you hear an officer calling for assistance, you know you can’t get down there to help them. So you just have to make sure that you can get other officers down there to assist.”