The lives of police officers in south London are being put at risk because of the increased burden put on their communication networks, officers on the beat have claimed.

It emerged yesterday that a woman police constable was injured and taken to hospital after she and two colleagues grappled with an assailant for six minutes. She had been unable to summon help on her walkie-talkie for more than five minutes.

Officers on the ground blame the reorganisation of Metropolitan police stations into new super divisions. The increased volume of radio traffic caused by reducing the eight Met areas into five, which officially takes effect from 1 August, is beyond the capabilities of overstretched networks, causing long waits to make routine inquiries.

One long-serving officer, who asked not to be named, said the restructuring had failed to deliver the promised efficiencies. 'Rushing the programme through in six months has been a shambles'.

Nicola Corbett, 24, has been a constable for six years, based at Wandsworth division. Last Thursday evening she was called to a disturbance at Putney leisure centre in Upper Richmond Road, Putney, where a man had been acting suspiciously. She was taken to hospital with cuts and bruises after he became violent.

The police source, who has 15 years experience in the force, said: 'The lack of response was entirely due to the lack of manpower and the radio not performing adequately.

He is based at the newly enlarged Wandsworth division, which was created by Wandsworth's amalgamation with Tooting at the weekend. Trinity Road station, formerly part of Wandsworth, was merged with the new Battersea division.

'What they (The Met) were supposed to achieve technically with amalgamation they have not achieved. Rushing the programme through in six months has been a shambles.

The policeman added: 'We do not normally break ranks, but the fact that we are talking now shows how desperate the situation is.'

He said that police on the division had been issued with new radios, but were having to rely on a radio system that was more than a quarter of a century old. The situation had been exacerbated because of the merger of his division with two thirds the area of a neighbouring division, meaning that more people were using the UHF walkie-talkies which had to operate on one frequency.

A receiver/transmitter was situated on a block of flats near the top of Putney Hill and there tended to be areas where reception was poor. 'There are black spots like this all over the new divisions, he said.

Chief Superintendent Steve Pilkington, of Battersea station, conceded that the street cover level in his area would fall in the short term. The telephone and radio systems could cope and would be improved. An obsolete telephone system at Battersea would be replaced by the end of the month, he said.

Wandsworth, the new super division in question, falls in the south-west area of the restructured Met. The area takes in locations as diverse as Brixton and Heathrow airport.

The unnamed officer said that currently, there were only eight officers who could be called on to deal with emergencies over an area from Balham, Tooting and Earlsfield which covered 125,000 people.

That had made serving officers nervous, he said. Police, who were already provided with protective armour by the Met, were flocking to seminars organised by commercial firms selling more defensive equipment. Sixty officers had gone to a couple of seminars organised six weeks ago at a Putney gym, where armour was being sold at pounds 300 for some pieces.

The plans are part of a long-term project to decentralise the Met, reducing the chain of command so that officers can be deployed more speedily.

Besides the eight areas being reduced to five, a smaller central area will be surrounded by four bigger areas, drawing together parts of the capital with common problems.

The old eight areas were each run by a deputy assistant commissioner. The new structure gives the five new DACs the status of chief constables and it is planned to transfer more constables from headquarters to local divisions to go back on the beat.

A spokesman for Scotland Yard said yesterday: 'It is very hard to understand why they are understaffed at busy times.

'Before, we had a rigid shift system, which meant stations could be overstaffed during quiet periods. Now the system is more flexible. It allows for more officers to be available during busy times.

A Met spokesman, commenting on the assault on the woman PC, said yesterday: 'A CID investigation is taking place because a violent man assaulted a police officer. Whether that was exacerbated by poor radio reception is part of the investigation.

(Photograph omitted)