Operations Sergeant Mike Ward speaking with Duty Operations Manager Shane Broomby in the Triple-0 operations centre.

Operations Sergeant Mike Ward speaking with duty operations manager Shane Broomby in the Triple-0 operations centre. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

From stolen garden gnomes to cold takeaway food, about half of the phone calls to the emergency triple-0 number in Canberra aren't emergencies, and about one in five are nuisance callers tying up valuable phone lines.

Tucked away in the Winchester Police Centre in Belconnen is ACT Policing’s 24-hour operations centre, a large room full of computer screens, live CCTV footage, maps, and dedicated teams of police officers and call operators taking constant phone calls and directing emergency enquiries.

There could be nothing happening and then for the next five to 10 minutes it could be just all hell breaks loose. 

Operations Sergeant Mike Ward

There are five emergency triple-0 phone lines, which last year took a total of more than 28,000 calls across all manner of subjects. In about 30 per cent of cases, callers genuinely didn't realise their call wasn't an emergency.

One example was a caller who wanted police to go to the local takeaway shop because his food was delivered cold. He told the triple-0 operator that the home delivery was 20 minutes late, and the restaurant just told him to heat the food in the microwave.

The caller was surprised to find out that a police officer wasn't going to be dispatched to assist him in the dispute.

Operations Sergeant Mike Ward, who trains the call operators, said the call was one of a number they had to deal with in an operations centre taking calls that could range in intensity from “zero to 100”.

“We can have someone’s stolen garden gnome, for example, at the lower end of the scale, it’s no longer sitting in the front yard, right through to people calling in life-threatening type situations,” he said.

“If people are ringing those lines for the incorrect reasons, we would get them to call back on 131 444 … The whole idea is to keep the five triple-0 lines as free as possible for those genuine life-threatening emergencies or time-critical situations.”

According to police, other common examples of inappropriate calls to triple-0 included intoxicated people calling to organise a taxi or use the service as a switchboard operator because they were out of phone credit, and unsupervised children who accidentally dialled the number.

But Sergeant Ward said about one-in-five calls were nuisance calls – an offence that not only tied up police resources, but could also result in arrest and charges.

“If there is a critical incident going on and the triple-0 number is being utilised quite a lot, [operators] would have to be pretty swift in dealing with people that are tying up those lines, and that could even mean sending a patrol to deal with those people because it is an offence,” he said.

The operators themselves are not necessarily sworn officers, and Sergeant Ward said the job attracted people who could multi-task and who thrived in high-pressure situations.

“It’s one of those jobs, where I guess it’s part of the attraction or the excitement of the work, is that you’re continually tested, and you don’t know what the next phone call is,” he said.

“Certainly there is a level of anticipation you could say in answering a triple-0 call as opposed to answering a run of the mill type call. Triple-0 calls tend to test our operators with how they can handle dealing with upset people, angry people, basically a whole range of emotions you can get.”

He said peak times for the call centre tended to be on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and also Sunday and Monday during the day for property-related crimes committed over the weekend. But he said any time of any day could also see huge spikes in calls, from offences against people and property, through to motor vehicle collisions.

“There could be nothing happening and then for the next five to 10 minutes it could be just all hell breaks loose, a whole bunch of things going on, and then it goes back to zero and it could stay that way for an hour or two. It’s all part of the job,” he said.