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Police Response Time in SA: How Bad Is It and What Can You Do?

Author: Megan Ellis
Date: 2017-06-19
Henri van Breda's emergency call has reignited the discussion on police response time in SA. We explore the issue and offer advice...
While many aspects of the trial of Henri van Breda has caught the public’s attention, one of these is the emergency call he made. Many people have criticised the emergency line operator for not being hasty enough. This has shone light on a pervasive concern of many South Africans; the efficiency of our emergency and police response services. But besides the anecdotal evidence and horror stories we hear, what is the state of emergency response times in the country? We look at the statistics to get a better picture.  

The State of Response Times

When compared with countries like the United States or other developed countries, South African response services are no match. According to, the reported national average for police response times in America is 11 minutes. It's a different story for us. StatsSA released their Victims of Crime Survey results earlier this year. These statistics rely on perceptions South African households have regarding crime and police services in the country. While the possibility of some subjectivity is present, it is a valuable measure to see how long people have said they have to wait for police to arrive at the scene of an incident. Nationally, respondents who provided a time frame said that police typically take over two hours to respond. The second highest number of households said police took an average of between 30 minutes and an hour. Most households didn’t provide a timeframe, however. For those who did though, the picture they paint isn't great. You can see the figures for responses below:
Time taken Number of respondents
Less than 30 minutes 2 029 (12.9%)
30 mins – 1 hour 2 542 (15.6%)
1-2 hours 1 878 (11.95%)
Over 2 hours 2 602 (16.6%)
Never arrive 592 (3.8%)
Unspecified 6 058 (38.6%)
  The survey also showed that the leading reason nationally for dissatisfaction with police services was “They don’t respond on time”. In terms of being satisfied with police services, response time was not the leading factor for households. Rather, they are happy with police arriving at the scene, police commitment, trustworthiness and arrests. Responding on time was only the fifth highest reason for satisfaction with services.

What Affects Response Times?

A major element affecting response times is the priority of the emergency. Generally, police will take longer to respond to an incident that is already over. Meanwhile, crimes that are in progress are treated with higher priority. This means that police will prioritise responding to someone trying to break into your home over you calling to report a break-in where the criminal has fled. In terms of the Van Breda call, you can hear a change in the operator’s haste once it is mentioned that people were attacked. The call also highlighted concerns over pranks. Unfortunately for emergency line operators, tens of thousands of prank calls are made during the course of the year. As a result, operators ask for more information instead of immediately dispatching a unit. Other factors that weigh in on response times are your distance from the nearest unit, as well as whether emergency services are easily able to locate you. This means that distant rural areas and places with no street names or landmarks will typically see slower response times. This is true even in countries with quicker response times. South African responders also have the obstacles of limited personnel (such as police units and call operators), less advanced technology, heightened potential for language barriers due to local linguistic diversity and other challenges. Even peak traffic is increasingly affecting response times, especially in congested cities like Cape Town which have limited emergency lanes and space. There are, however, some steps you can take during your call to try to ensure the quickest response possible.
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What To Do During An Emergency Call

The first step when making an emergency call is to quickly explain the nature of the incident, give your name and number, and give an accurate address. According to Arrive Alive, an accurate address is extremely important. Callers need to know local landmarks and will have to potentially agree to meet responders at one to direct them. This is especially important in townships and newly built estates, as emergency services often do not have these roads mapped. ER24 provided Arrive Alive with some guidelines for callers.
“A caller should first state their name and surname and identify that they would like to log an emergency call such as an accident, heart attack etc. The second most important thing would be to provide your contact number in case the line gets disconnected. The emergency call taker can then contact the caller back”, ER24 told Arrive Alive. “The caller should state clearly where the incident is and give as much information about the location as possible.”
You need to speak calmly and clearly to communicate this. Handy Tip: When spelling out a street name for an operator, use words for letters that may be misheard (a spelling alphabet). For example, you can specify letters by saying things like “D for duck, B for bird, E for elephant”, etc. While these steps can help speed up the response time, they cannot account for delays out of the responders’ control. However speedy communication does save precious time.

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