New Delhi: At 4.45pm on a Thursday, constable Anu’s practised calm slips seconds after she picks up the phone and says, “Namashkar ji, PCR channel Number 1-2-0."

“Hello? Hello? He’s beating my mother very badly," says the voice on the line, in Hindi. It’s a young girl’s voice, pitched high with fearful tension, sobbing between the words.

Anu’s voice wavers as she says, “Where are you calling from? Who’s hitting your mother?"

“Please make it stop," the girl says, sobbing louder. “My father is hitting her, there is so much blood."

“Tell me your location, tell me your location," Anu urges, barely suppressing her own panic. The girl sounds like she is very young, and Anu hears a crashing sound in the background, and she fears the worst. Halting, breathless and crying, the girl gives her address and then the line goes dead.

Anu types the address on the complaint form on her computer, marks it “high priority", ticks the boxes that automatically alerts ambulance services, local police, and the Delhi government’s women’s helpline, and sends the alert out seconds after the call gets cut.

Now she frets that maybe she got the address wrong. She rushes to the command room from which all calls that come in to Delhi Police’s 100 number are supervised. She tells the in-charge about the call, and asks to hear the recording on their speaker so they can confirm that the address on the alert is correct. The call is played back. The address is correct. The inspector in charge of 100 calls the dispatcher’s command room to ensure that they understand that this can be a difficult situation, and that a PCR van gets there quickly.

*****

Inside the “call centre" at Delhi’s Police Control Room (PCR) 100, the number that the city dials in an emergency, there is never a dull moment. It is the first front for all of Delhi’s violence, distress, rage, panic and trouble. It is a call centre unlike any in the city in that it is always under siege—fielding calls by the thousands every single day. In the 30 days of September, 1,050,558 calls were fielded by the force manning the phones. That’s an average of over 35,000 calls a day, or 24 calls a minute.

The PCR is manned 24 hours, divided into 3 shifts, with 50 operators handling 50 channels on any given shift.

“We hear calls in our sleep, in our dreams," Anu, who has been with the call centre for just over two weeks, says. “Sometimes my family calls me on my mobile and I pick it up and say ‘Namashkar, PCR channel number’…and they say, ‘Have you gone mad?’"

What is it like to be behind the telephone and the console, behind the dispatcher’s radio, and at the wheels of a PCR van that forms the Delhi Police’s emergency response system? No other city police force in India handles the volume of calls and emergencies that floods Delhi Police’s control room on a daily basis.

This is, in brief, how the set-up works:

The PCR “call centre" is manned 24 hours, divided into three shifts, with 50 operators handling 50 channels on any given shift. Most of these channels are dedicated to 100; a handful are given to more specialized lines, like 1091, the women’s helpline number (two channels), 1094 for missing persons (one channel), and 1093, the special cell for northeastern states (two channels). The specialized lines get only a trickle of calls through the day, most people just dial 100.

Once a call comes in to any of these channels, the operator behind the line tries to coax out basic information—the caller’s location and the nature of the complaint—which they feeds into their computer. The call can be slotted into one of three categories of priority: high, medium or low. A standard protocol defines the priorities—for example, all calls from women in distress go to high, as do the usual suspects robbery, murder, dead bodies, kidnapping, rioting, armed attacks, etc. If the operator is fielding a high priority call, they will also tick the boxes on their screen that alert other emergency service providers, including the Delhi government’s CATS ambulance service, traffic police, and local police. The fire brigade and the National Disaster Relief Force can also be notified.

The call centre is supervised by a six-member team sitting inside a glass-walled enclosure in the middle of an open-plan, cubicled space. The old name for this command room was Ruler Automatic Exchange, shortened to RAX, which is what everyone still calls it. The call centre has an inspector in charge of the shift, who is called Inspector RAX, which, for this group—the Charlie shift—is Jagminder Singh, a good-natured, thickly moustachioed man. When an operator has trouble with a call—the address is unclear, the call is abruptly cut off, or needs critical attention—she walks up to RAX for help. All calls are recorded automatically, and RAX has a playback facility. RAX also issues QSTs, or quick sort transmissions, which is a message read out and received by every police radio in operation.

On the floor above the call centre is the “dispatch room", which follows nearly the same floor plan and command system as the “call centre". Here, operators are divided according to the Delhi Police’s zonal demarcation of the city. When a call operator puts out an alert, it comes up on the dispatch operator’s console according to the location on the alert. The priorities are colour-coded. A high-priority is in bright pink. It is now up to the dispatcher to read out the alert to the PCR vehicle nearest to the caller’s location. The dispatcher needs to be particularly skilled at doing this—there is no map with satellite inputs for them to consult for locations and available vehicles. Instead, the operator relies on their knowledge of the area, and a mental map of where the PCR vans are located, which ones are already on call and if they can be diverted or not, how many vehicles may be needed in response, and other such considerations. Dispatchers keep handwritten lists of various locations and the vehicles in their vicinity, but they rarely need to consult them.

The final piece of the response system is the PCR van itself. At any given time, there are 776 such vehicles on call covering an area of roughly 1250 sq. km, plus 24 “Parakram" vans that are staffed with special police commandoes and are usually only called into action if there is a perceived terrorist threat. The dispatchers can also call on local police patrol vehicles of their area, and liaise with the zonal police controls to deploy more responders.

“Our job is to respond to everything, and respond in the appropriate way," says Devender Arya, DCP, operations and communications. “Our system works on a three-level redundancy—all calls are reported to the district police administration, the local police station, and the PCR, so nothing can slip out."

At any given time, there are 776 PCR vans on call, covering an area of almost 1250 square kilometre

Yet, the system clearly struggles—with the sheer volume of emergencies it is expected to handle, its decidedly outmoded software, and its creaky infrastructure. It took less than 30 seconds for Anu to push the alert from the domestic violence call from the terrified child, and another three minutes for the call to be played back at RAX and for the in-charge to verbally relay the critical nature of the emergency to dispatch. At dispatch, though, it took a full eight minutes before the call could be matched to a PCR vehicle in the vicinity. The PCR vehicle, on the other hand, was at the address in just four minutes. They found the injured mother, who had been stabbed through the left of the chest with a kitchen knife but was not in danger of her life. She and her daughter were rushed to a hospital by the PCR, which took another 16 minutes. The local police arrived to take the father into custody.

*****

Back at the call centre, operators were dealing with a man who was toying with the emergency response system. Between midnight and 2.53pm, he had made 31 calls to 100. In the very first call, knowing that it would set in motion a chain of predetermined reactions from the police, he had reported a bomb that was “about to explode". Even while local police and PCR vans searched for him, he kept calling—in one call he reported that there has been a murder and gave the address of a house, in another he repeated the bomb threat but gave a different location, on a third he started abusing the operator. After a while, when his number blinked on their terminals, the operators responded with weary indifference: “Hello, PCR channel no 1-2-8…"

“What are you doing? Are you serious about your work? There’s a bomb in Tughlaqabad that’s about to explode."

“Oh, it’s you again."

“Yes, it’s me you xxxx…"

Meanwhile, more serious work continued. A QST was issued after a caller complained that three bike-borne men had snatched her handbag. At 2.56pm, a man called to say that there was a major fire in a building, and that there were still people inside. It was put on high priority, everyone from the fire brigade to disaster management to traffic police was informed. It took just a little over two minutes for PCR vans to be assigned to the fire from the time the call came in. Another QST was issued when a caller reported that there were some men in a car sitting with guns.

As the call centre buzzed with its usual soundtrack of insistent, incessant ringing of phones, one of the shift supervisors from RAX made a round of the room and exhorted everyone to respond quicker, keep their focus.

Anu’s phone rang without interruption; each time she ended a call, another one came on. A labourer called to say he was not being paid. A policeman called asking for the number of the in-charge of a particular police station. A blank call.

Anu put the phone down: it rang immediately.

“Namashkar, PCR channel number 120."

“Hello? I was in a shop and I bought something and I asked for a receipt and the shop-owner beat me up."

“Where are you calling from, can you give me the address?"

The address is given.

“Are you injured? Do you need an ambulance?"

“No, no. He beat me up badly. He threw me down on the ground and threw me against a wall."

“You are not hurt? You don’t need an ambulance?"

“No, no."

“Ok, the police are on their way."

She ends the call and another one comes.

“Ma’am I need an appointment number for AIIMS."

“Sir, this is the police control room."

“This is not AIIMS? I have a patient."

“No, sir, this is the police control room. Do you need an ambulance? I can send you an ambulance."

“No, no. That’s fine. No need."

Then a call comes complaining about a traffic jam. Then another complaining of an assault outside a shop (this one asks for an ambulance); then a frantic call about a child being beaten up by his own family—a major clamour can be heard in the background, the caller says the child is seriously injured and needs an ambulance, someone in the background screams, “Put him in the car, put him in the car"; then someone calls asking for the time, and is given it; a caller comes on the line to say that there has been a road accident and a fight has broken out between the two parties involved; a woman reports a robbery at her home, and another one calls to report a stolen motorbike.

A PCR van accompanies the Delhi-Lahore bus to the depot. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
A PCR van accompanies the Delhi-Lahore bus to the depot. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“Madam, tell me the licence number of the bike?" Anu asks.

“Licence number?"

“Yes, ma’am."

“I don’t know the licence number."

“Ma’am how will we trace a bike without its licence number?"

On the other side, the caller can be heard asking two men in succession if they know the licence number—both say they don’t.

“Ok ma’am, tell me the make of the bike."

“I don’t know what make it is, but I can tell you it is black in colour."

Anu files the complaint, chuckling to herself. The phone rings.

“Namashkar ji, PCR channel No. 120."

“Hello? Madam there is a child being beaten up by his parents. He is badly injured."

“Yes sir, you had called earlier," Anu says—when a number that has called previously calls again, the details of the last call automatically come up on the screen.

“But no one has come here madam. Are you waiting for someone to die?"

“Sir, we have already sent a PCR and ambulance to this address."

“But no one has come yet!"

“Sir, they will arrive in five more minutes at the most, but I am logging your complaint again and alerting them again, ok?"

“Ok."

There was a gap of six minutes between the two calls about the child being beaten, and the PCR van reached the spot eleven minutes after the first alert was sent out. In a span of fifteen minutes, Anu had answered the phone 23 times, and filed 12 alerts. She calls it light traffic. “But you can see what it’s like for us," she says. “It’s scary, isn’t it?"

******

As recent recruits to PCR, there are certain calls that get imprinted deep into the minds of the operators. As they get more and more familiarized with their job, the chances of any one call getting stuck in memory, no matter how horrifying, becomes increasingly rare. But those first calls, the first taste of the pain that filters through the call centre, remain resolutely lodged.

For Anu, it was a murder that was reported late on a night shift. The first call from the number was made by a woman screaming and crying that her husband was beating her up. A few minutes later, when the same number flashed again on her screen, it was the husband—calling to say that he had killed his wife.

“When I first came here and heard calls like this..." Anu says: “...people howling and crying, people being beaten up, it felt shocking, I felt desperate to do something.

“But it’s funny how quickly these things become just normal... routine. Now I am cold, I try to have no emotion towards these calls, because that makes you more efficient."

Anu is the youngest of five siblings, and her family is from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh. Her father taught in a government school. She joined the police because she had always wanted to be in a job which requires wearing a uniform, and “helping the public". In college, she applied to Delhi police with a bunch of like-minded friends and got through. At first, she was picked for the police sports team and spent months as a full-time athlete, training for 100m and 200m sprints. But she did not make the cut, and was drafted into PCR. She still goes running when she gets the chance, but it’s becoming rarer and rarer. She lives in a police housing with four other policewomen; one of them works with her at the call centre, one is posted with a PCR van, one at a police station, and another is a commando attached to a Parakram van.

PCR operators see a 24-hour span through a peculiar filter: early mornings, say from 4am-8am, is when dead bodies are found, and road accidents and robberies are reported; from 8am, traffic jams and road rage; from 10am till around 4pm, when most people are at work, calls are fewer; from 6pm to 9pm, again traffic jams and road rage; after 11pm, the drunkards and ‘habituals’ start calling.

Unlike Anu, most women at the call centre did not dream of ever joining the police. Anu’s neighbour Renu, a tall, athletic, and gregarious woman, wanted to become an air hostess but that ambition was thwarted by her father, a former army man.

“I am from a pretty backward area...from a village called Khaira in Mahendragarh (Haryana), and my father did not want me to work at all," Renu says.

But when the sons and daughters of an uncle were applying en masse to Delhi Police, Renu’s mother pushed her to apply as well.

Renu joined the force in 2010 (none of her cousins made it), and is now considered a veteran at the call centre; others look to her for help when they can’t figure out an address or location.

“I have a pretty good knowledge of Delhi’s geography," she says. “It’s funny, because I can tell you exactly where this place or that place is, but I’ve never been to most of these places."

When she first came here, Renu remembers being overwhelmed by the sheer number of calls; so much so, that for a time, she could not understand what most callers were saying to her. “I was always running to RAX, it was so embarrassing."

The other thing that shook her in those early days is just how much trouble constantly brews in Delhi.

“In the beginning, I thought this can’t be normal, this is like we are in the middle of some kind of disaster," Renu says. “And then there is a period when you get scared of everything, small things that did not bother you before, you think twice just walking down the street."

Like Anu, all of this became “normal" for Renu within a few weeks. Yet, recently, Renu got a call reporting a fire in Dilshad Garden. Twenty minutes later, she checked her terminal for a report from the responders. What she saw made her heart sink: four people had died in the fire already, including two babies and their mother.

“I was so depressed," Renu says. “I went back home and told my mother, my sisters, and I cried so much."

******

Tonight, Charlie shift is on night duty.

PCR operators see a 24-hour span through a peculiar filter: early mornings, say from 4am-8am, is when dead bodies are found, and road accidents and robberies are reported. From 8am, it is time to field calls for traffic jams and road rage. From 10am till around 4pm is the best time, when most people are at work, calls are fewer. From 6pm to 9pm, the traffic jam and road rage calls come flooding back. Post 11pm, it’s time for the drunkards and the “habituals" to start calling.

There are only two kinds of calls that are constant through 24 hours: quarrels and domestic violence. Together, they account for nearly 50% of all calls received by 100.

“People in Delhi really like to fight," Renu says. “And they seem to never be able to resolve any situation themselves. Anything happens, call 100."

Sure enough, Charlie shift’s night begins with an absolute deluge of quarrel, domestic violence, traffic jam, and road rage calls. The room explodes with the sound of ringing phones and answering voices. Anu’s first call of the shift is one of domestic violence. Renu’s is a hoax caller:

“Madam, I have been attacked with a knife and I need your help."

“Tell me your location?" Renu asks.

“Madam please come and save me."

“Sir, please tell me your location, we’ll send you police and ambulance."

“Madam, you tell me your location and I will come straight to you."

Renu cuts the call. There are other calls like this before the night is out, an average of two per woman operator—heavy breathers, callers directly saying “Madam, I want to fuck you", or variations of that.

“Makes my blood boil every time," Anu says. Soon after, she gets a call from a drunken man who wants assistance.

“I am lying on the side of the road, I need someone to take me home."

“Sir, where are you? Can you tell me your location?" Anu asks.

“I am on the side of a big road."

“But which road, sir? Delhi has a lot of big roads. Can you see anything around you?"

“It’s a big road, just send someone to pick me up."

“But where do I send them? Where are you?"

“I am lying on the side of a road, I am drunk."

In exasperation, Anu reports this to RAX, who chooses to ignore it.

There are polite callers too, calling about minor issues where they need help, ending their conversations with ‘Thank you, ma’am’. But as the night progresses, the domestic violence and women-in-distress calls pile up.

At the 1091 women’s helpline console, constable Ankesh gets a call from a panic-stricken woman who has run out of her home after being beaten by her husband.

An officer reads out an all-station alert at the ‘100’ command room; (below) policemen investigate a murder scene at Shahdara. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
An officer reads out an all-station alert at the ‘100’ command room; (below) policemen investigate a murder scene at Shahdara. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“The police are on their way ma’am," Ankesh says, “I have alerted PCR and local police, stay where you are. Can I send an ambulance? OK, the PCR will take you where you want to go. You want to go to the court? But, ma’am, it’s very late at night, the courts are closed. No, please don’t sleep outside on the streets, please go back home, the police will talk to your husband."

Anu gets a second call from a woman who had called earlier about domestic violence, and belies her inexperience by getting into a needless session of hair-splitting.

“Ma’am, there’s an inspector who has come to my house."

“Ok, that’s good, you asked for the police, but it can’t be an inspector, they must have sent a PCR," Anu says.

“I don’t know who they have sent, but there is a policeman here, and I can’t see his name because he does not have a badge."

“Ok, ma’am, I will confirm your address with you (she reads out the address), and we are sending someone."

“What do you mean you are sending someone?"

“We are sending your message forward."

“What will that do?"

“Then we will take action accordingly."

“Ma’am, I want them to come with a lady police and take me away from here to a police station."

“But the PCR that has come to you doesn’t have a lady police?"

“No, it’s just one inspector."

“Madam it’s not an inspector, it must be a PCR. Isn’t this policeman helping you?"

“No, he is not, he is calling me mad."

The PCR and local police being independent forces, people can call 100 and complain about police malpractice. Many calls come in from people saying a policeman is refusing to file a complaint, or threatening them to withdraw a case. PCR vans respond to these calls. This, in fact, is possibly the best defence against police wrongdoing, since every call to 100 is automatically recorded, and the entire process of the call and the response, including every conversation, is recorded both digitally and in a hand-written ledger every step of the way.

When the call ends, Anu asks a neighbour, “Is she a habitual?"

“Yes," says the neighbour, “she’s a little mad."

Many calls come in from people saying a policeman is refusing to file a complaint, or threatening them to withdraw a case. This, in fact, is possibly the best defence against police wrongdoing, since every call to 100 is automatically recorded.

There is no getting away from the stereotyping. It’s both human nature and a defence mechanism. “We get more domestic violence calls than anything else," Renu says. “The whole thing about violence against women in Delhi, how unsafe it is for women, we get exposed to that the moment we enter PCR, and it never stops."

At RAX, inspector Jagminder Singh is handling quite a different kind of domestic call. It’s from a man in Najafgarh who had called 100 and raised hell, and is now being handled directly by inspector Singh. He complains that his wife beats him up regularly and that every time he calls 100 the police come and take him away and put him in the lock-up.

“I have gone to the SHO, the ACP, the DCP, and every time they have victimized me. How will I get justice?"

“So, what do you want us to do?" Singh asks. “When you call 100, we can take down your complaint and send the police over, what they do after that is not in our hands. Have you ever thought that since they lock you up every time, maybe the fault is yours?"

He has a good laugh after keeping the phone down. “This guy, he is an alcoholic," Singh says. “He always comes home late at night drunk and starts verbally abusing his wife. Women don’t put up with that kind of behaviour now."

A little after midnight, a woman calls from somewhere in Rajouri Garden saying that her car has broken down; she is all alone. It sends PCR into a tizzy, but she gives a good description of her location, and a police vehicle reaches her within six minutes of her call. More calls come in: a shoot-out, a stabbing, a kidnapping, more quarrels and more domestic violence.

On 1091, Ankesh gets a call from a woman who has called before because her name and address come up on her terminal. But all she can hear over the line is sobbing. She follows protocol and puts it on high priority and informs RAX and there is a concerted effort to call her back, but her phone now comes switched off. This is the worst situation 100 operators can find themselves in: a call that cannot be traced. Calls made from mobile phones, which account for the vast majority of calls, are notoriously difficult to trace. At best, the police can file a formal request with the service provider for the number and get the location of the cell tower from which the call to 100 was relayed—which gives them a vague 5km radius—and the registered address of the caller. A PCR van went to her address and found the house locked. Local police were asked to take it up and the PCR filed a report that the call was “untrace".

At 3.45am, Anu is roused by a caller saying a woman is trying to hang herself and has closed the doors to her room. A car is dispatched three minutes later, but by the time the vehicle reaches the location at 4am, the woman is dead.

At 4.07am, a QST is read out after a man is robbed of his car at gunpoint: “All stations please note, car number XX, Honda Amaze white colour, all stations to check. Report to command room and concerned police station when you get it. Check-in in half an hour. All stations out."

Because the theft is reported immediately after it has taken place, the stolen car is trapped by one of the many police checkpoints in place within half an hour.

The night shift ends with a call that seems routine at the time, but which takes on gigantic proportions just a few hours later. At 7.16am, forty-four minutes from the end of shift, a caller reports that there’s the body of a man lying outside a house. He gives the location as Jindal Royal Mill, Mansarovar Park, Shahdara. At 7.19am, dispatch passes the message on. The PCR van reaches the spot a few minutes later and reports that the call is true. The night shift ends at eight and is replaced by the next shift. At 8.25am, the PCR van sends a more detailed report with the description of the dead man, the suspected mode of killing, and lists the policemen on the scene, including a doctor, the SHO of the local police station, and a designated investigative officer (IO).

At 9.27am, a frantic call comes from the police on the scene reporting that four more dead bodies have been found, three women and their mother, their throats slit, inside a single room in the house. By 10.48am, the place is swarming with policemen and senior officers in what turns out to be one of the worst mass murders of the year in Delhi.

Policemen investigate a murder scene at Shahdara. Photo: Sonu Mehta/ Hindustan Times
Policemen investigate a murder scene at Shahdara. Photo: Sonu Mehta/ Hindustan Times

******

If it is possible to imagine, the stress levels inside the dispatch room are at an even more feverish pitch than at the call centre. The first thing a policeman at dispatch tells me: “This place can drive you mad!"

Assistant sub-inspector (ASI) Kunwar Pal, who handled the Shahdara murder call, a bespectacled man with short-cropped hair and a large, gnome-like head, points to his terminal and says with acute frustration: “We are responding to one alert, and six more come in within a minute. It took me less than two minutes to pass this call, and look, there’s nine more queued up already!"

Not only is the console operator at dispatch finding the appropriate vehicle, reading out the complaint and passing the call through, they are also then following up with the responding vehicle, asking for the “halaat (situation) report", and filling out the report on his console. An accompanying person at each console is also filling out the details of every conversation in a hand-written ledger.

“The situation here is very bad, very stressful," says Pal’s colleague ASI Suresh Chauhan, who, having spent 12 years is dispatch now, is the most experienced man on the floor. “Then think about the PCR van—we are passing on six-seven calls at one time to each vehicle on an average. Where will he go? How much time will he take? How long does a stabbed man wait before help gets to him?"

This is the transcript of a recording of five-minutes duration at Pal’s console, which is assigned to the Shahdara area with the call sign ‘Leo 1’. The double digits are the vehicle call signs.

“Leo six-one, Leo 1."

“Leo 1, Leo six-one, carry on, janaab."

“Leo six-one there is a manhole in Loni road, without a cover, anyone can fall in."

“Noted, janaab."

“Leo six-three, Leo 1, Leo six-three."

“Carry on Leo 1."

“GTB Enclave house no. XX, domestic violence. Note the phone number six-three (number is given)."

“Leo 1, six-three, noted."

“Whoever has a halaat report to give, please give it! Leo nine-three, Leo 1, speak up, Leo nine-three."

“Leo nine-three, Leo 1, we are on call at GTB Enclave, bus has hit a car, no one injured, we are settling it, situation normal."

“Noted nine-three."

Pal gets a call from the command room asking him about the situation with the domestic call he just dispatched. “Yes sir, yes sir, this call has been coming since very early morning, started on the night shift," Pal says. “PCR has been there twice already, this is the third time, and local police is there too."

Then back on the radio.

“Leo two-three, Leo 1, Leo two-three."

“Carry on, janaab."

“Two-three please note, quarrel at Seelampur Gol Bethak, caller’s phone number is…."

“Noted, Leo 1. Gol baithak?"

“Yes, two-three."

“Roger."

“Leo 2, this theft call from Vivek Vihar—you have not directed LP (local police) yet and your cars are engaged, please direct LP immediately."

“All cars, Leo 1, please give me your halaat reports whoever has it."

“Nine-zero, Leo 1, Nine-zero."

“Nine-zero, Leo 1, nine-zero, please respond."

“Leo 1, nine-zero, carry on."

“Nine-zero, gali number 7, Jai Mata Di gali, house no. xx, Raghubarpura, caller’s brother’s wife, who works in a factory, had gone to work and should have come back home two hours ago, but has not come back. Phone number is….Nine-zero?"

“Leo 1, please repeat the last two digits of the number."

It is repeated.

“Leo 1, noted."

“What we want," says, ASI Chauhan, “is that a call comes, and it’s a critical call, and we pass it on without any other distractions or headaches, and the car reaches the location immediately. But we find it so hard to do just that. For starters, we need more men here in dispatch, more consoles, because the current system can’t handle the volume, and also, we need three-four times the number of vehicles that we have on patrol."

Not only is the console operator at dispatch finding the appropriate vehicle, reading out the complaint and passing the call through, they are also then following up with the responding vehicle, asking for the “halaat (situation) report, and filling out the report on his console.

That the system needs a major upgrade is not news for the police administration. This year, they begun trials on a nationwide single emergency number system like 911 in the US or 999 in the UK. These are the last days of 100. Simultaneously there is work on to temporarily upgrade to 300 channels for 100 and other police emergency numbers from the current strength of 100 channels, which means more operators and dispatchers.

“There will be major upgrades in all software as well," says DCP Arya. “The next-level will be fully integrated, fully GPS-enabled, with automated vehicle selection. Everyone’s console will have a map on which they will be able to see the tentative location of the caller and the real-time movement and locations of all the police vehicles."

Think of a software that basically behaves like the Uber app.

“Things will certainly get more efficient," Arya says, “and the response time will get better, because when you marry better technology with human touch, the outstanding knowledge that the dispatchers have of their areas, it can only lead to improvement."

That human touch is the most critical aspect of the most important role that a dispatcher plays, that of prioritizing and assigning vehicles according to the nature of the emergency.

“The more experience a person has here, the more you will internalize all the systems, all the possible responses available to you, all the routes and locations," says ASI Jyoti. She recalls a call that came in late at night around two months ago, when a husband asked for help because his wife had labour pains. When the PCR van reached them, along with an ambulance, the husband refused to let the ambulance take his wife saying he can’t afford ambulance charges. He was told that it was free, but that did not convince him. The PCR van called Jyoti back, and she directed them to just take the woman to the nearest government hospital in the van.

“They called again from the van, and said the lady is in a lot of pain," Jyoti says, “and I could hear her screaming in the background. I realized that they would never reach the government hospital in time so I directed them to the nearest private hospital. But then the policemen said it looked like the baby is coming out. I told them to stop the car, make her comfortable, give her space, put blankets under her, tell her to keep breathing and pushing."

Soon enough, the baby was born.

“I was not relieved that the baby was born, because the inside of a police car is no place for such a thing," Jyoti says. “I told them don’t touch anything, just drive her to the hospital carefully and slowly. I was happy only when they called back to say that the mother and the baby had been admitted and were fine."

******

At 8pm, the PCR van Wolf 14, with its base near police headquarters, and an area of operation that includes the bustling localities of ITO and Daryaganj, undergoes a shift handover. The van has the usual crew of an armed driver, a “gunman" with a sub-machine gun, and an “IC" or in-charge.

“The toughest calls for us are the accident calls," says head constable Ashok, the gunman, who was assigned to PCR nine months back. “We are always the first on the scene, much before the ambulance, so most often we are the ones who have to pick up the injured and take them to the hospital and sometimes the injuries are horrific, and we have great difficulty in handling them."

There are certain calls that get imprinted deep into the minds of the operators. As they get more and more familiarized with their job, the chances of any one call getting stuck in memory, no matter how horrifying, becomes increasingly rare.

After the maddening, frenetic atmosphere of the call centre and dispatch rooms, the final piece of the 100 response system almost seems peaceful. There is time to listen in on all the mundanities that play out endlessly over the radio.

A car is told to respond to reports of a fight and they answer saying that they have run out of fuel and need time to refuel.

“Wolf three-four, you are the only car in the area, we can’t allow you to do that."

“Wolf 2, we have zero fuel."

“Wolf three-four, why didn’t you refuel in the morning, this is heavy call time!"

“Wolf 2, you tell me what to do then?"

The radio crackles again and this time Wolf two-four is in the firing line for not giving a situation report on time.

“Wolf 2, wait for 10 more minutes, janaab."

“Wolf two-four, what’s your location?"

Wolf two-four gives the location.

“Tell you what, Wolf two-four, you stay there, order a couple of cups of tea, and I will come down there and personally note down the halaat report from you over tea."

“Roger, Wolf two."

Wolf 14 is assigned a traffic accident call, and roars out with sirens blazing. It takes six minutes to reach the location but the situation has been resolved by that time, and the complainants are nowhere to be found. Then a bike-borne snatching report comes in, and Wolf 14 is told to set up a checking roadblock near Maulana Azad Medical College.

Wolf 14 reaches the location, and along with a couple of local policemen, quickly sets up the roadblock under the flashing blue and red lights of their vehicle. For the next half hour, Wolf 14 assists in checking bikes, but the snatchers are not found. Then a call comes in about a man lying in the middle of the road near Maulana Azad Medical College. Wolf 14 zooms out again with sirens flashing, driving on the wrong side for a while to cut time.

A dispatcher directs a PCR van to respond to a distress call.
A dispatcher directs a PCR van to respond to a distress call.

En route, the gunman calls back on the complainant’s number for the exact location. They find the man opposite the main gate of the college, lying in the middle of a wide, busy road. The IC quickly gets out and checks his pulse. He is alive. The man is senselessly drunk and dressed in tattered, dirty clothes. The policemen are gentle with him. They position their vehicle so that no oncoming traffic comes and hits the man.

They wake him up and ask him if he has a home and if they can drop him there. He says no, he lives on the street. They tell him he has to move out of the middle of the road otherwise a car will run him over. There is loose change all around him that has spilled from his pocket, and the policemen use their flashlight to help him gather the money.

Then they pick him up, and while Wolf 14’s driver signals the traffic to stop, they slowly help him cross over to a park on the other side of the road, where he passes out on a bench. Then the policemen head back to their car.

It will be a long night ahead.

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