Police in move to deter 999 time wasters

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The Independent Online
SCOTLAND YARD is considering setting up an alternative number to the 999 emergency call - possibly 333 - to help to reduce the 1.5 million people who every year clog up the system with non-urgent inquiries.

The Metropolitan Police's 999 system costs pounds 4m a year and three-quarters of the two million "emergency" calls made last year were considered unnecessary and in some cases ridiculous. The calls included a request for an investigation into the theft of a packet of cigarettes, advice on stain removal, a plea for help in removing a rat, and a complaint that the window cleaner had failed to turn up.

Under the scheme, callers wanting to contact police for information and advice would be able to ring a simple three-digit number - a facility that police believe would ease pressure on the 999 service. A police spokesman said: "We are looking at how much it would cost and what technical problems might be involved. It would be for non-urgent police calls, leaving 999 free for what it is intended - which is emergencies that require an immediate police response."

The proposals are being examined by the Met's "999 project" working group, headed by Assistant Chief Constable Paul Manning. If successful the scheme could be adopted by forces throughout the country, all of whom are plagued by hundreds of thousands of time wasters every year. The Audit Commission, the public spending watchdog, has in the past suggested a 333 number for non-emergency inquiries.

Much of the increase in the 999 calls is due to people making greater use of mobile telephones. Mobiles are also responsible for a huge rise in accidental emergency calls when the 999 digits are unintentionally pressed. This counted for an estimated 80,000 calls last year and the Yard predicts this will rise to 150,000 in 1999.