Pick up the phone and catch a thief

Voice-mail is helping Northumbria police keep track of miscreants. By Steve Homer
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Voice-mail, that bane of modern life, may have a use after all - catching poachers. Northumbria's police force has 3,500 officers and around 1,500 civilian staff protecting a population of about 1.5 million people. It also has about 1,000 contacts keeping an eye open as part of its Neighbourhood Watch, Farm Watch, Valley Watch, Hotel Watch and Poacher Watch schemes. It is these who are now being plugged into voice-mail.

In 1992, the force installed a computerised Octel VMX voice messaging system for internal use. It proved a huge success, and a bright policeman decided it could help improve the handling of Neighbourhood Watch contacts.

"These schemes can be pretty demanding in terms of time spent on communications - for the police and the public," says Superintendent Dennis Mitford, in charge of communications for the Northumbria force.

In the past, if police believed an orange Land Rover was being used by a team of sheep-rustling desperados, they would have to ring all Watch contacts in the area to alert them. Now, the system can be told to to dial up all the contacts automatically. When they come to the phone, they punch in a password and recorded information is played to them.

To avoid being too intrusive, the system is told when to call people. Some contacts like to be called first thing in the morning. Others prefer a call during the day or in the evening. In an emergency, the most appropriate people and numbers can be contacted instantly.

"If you can get information out to people promptly, they might be able to do something about a situation," Superintendent Mitford says. "If you cannot get hold of them for 24 hours, things will have changed."

"It is a pretty flexible system," says Gladys Tindle, a civilian employee who manages the VMX system. Police officers and civilian staff in the various command units control the system using software from Octel called Visual Mailbox, which runs on a PC (personal computer, not police constable). Relevant contacts are selected simply by clicking on the right mailboxes and functions.

Equally importantly, it allows Northumbria police to check that messages have been picked up. "Our civilian staff are pretty computer literate these days," says Superintendent Mitford. "For them, getting to know the VMX system is just like becoming familiar with another software package."