With a shrinking workforce, some governments see AI as a solution.
During a storm, 911 call centers are frequently inundated with reports of downed trees, flooded roads, and panicked residents. Every call is important, but when there are multiple reports of the same incident, the pressure on emergency services can become overwhelming.
A technological ally has emerged amid the chaos: artificial intelligence. AI is quietly transforming how non-emergency calls are handled in dispatch centers in the United States. An AI-powered system can triage and coordinate the flood of reports, alerting the appropriate agencies as soon as possible.
For the time being, AI-powered systems only handle non-emergency calls, which typically come from non-911 phone numbers but are answered in the same centers, freeing up human dispatchers to handle emergencies.
The incorporation of AI technology into 911 centers is in part a response to a critical staffing shortage and the pressing need to address the mental health challenges that emergency responders face. While AI-powered systems in 911 centers have the potential to provide benefits such as managing call surges and reducing dispatcher workloads, experts are concerned that these systems may overprescribe police response or make mistakes due to biases.
So far, less than a dozen municipalities in seven states are using or testing artificial intelligence in their 911 centers. However, as in other industries, leaders are curious about how AI can transform workplaces.
“For me, I think the use of AI for non-emergency calls is a fantastic idea,” said Ty Wooten, director of government affairs for the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch, an organization that helps set standards for emergency dispatch centers.”I see the huge benefit of being able to alleviate those calls out of the 911 center queue so that the 911 call takers can really focus … on the ones that really matter.”
Workers are scarce in emergency call centers. According to a report released in June this year by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch and the National Association of State 911 Administrators, one in every four jobs at 911 centers will be vacant between 2019 and 2022. As emergency call centers struggle with understaffing, some 911 calls may go unanswered or become stuck in long lines.
“That subsequent loss of staff makes everyone have to work more, which then burns people out and creates more turnover,” Wooten said in a telephone interview. “It’s this vicious cycle.”
For the time being, there is little regulation on how artificial intelligence can assist. Few states have established AI regulatory frameworks. In many states, the definition of AI remains ambiguous.
According to Brandon Abley, the director of technology for the National Emergency Number Association, a nonprofit professional organization, public safety agencies often approach new technologies, including artificial intelligence, with caution due to concerns about service disruptions.
“[Emergency call centers] are not really stumbling over themselves to try and implement AI in their operations because generally, they don’t want huge disruptions to their operations unless they’re very, very certain,” Abley told Stateline in a phone interview.
And there could be drawbacks, he added. Dispatchers, for example, may face increased mental health challenges if they must manage more emergency calls because an AI system handles the majority of administrative or non-emergency calls.
“We think it looks promising,” Abley said in an interview, “but we’re also cautious.”
Improving efficiency and decreasing workload
AI systems for call-taking in 911 centers are already being tested or implemented in municipalities in Colorado, Maryland, Missouri, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.
The dual role that call center employees play is one of the driving forces. The same people answer both emergency and non-emergency calls in most public safety centers. With a shrinking workforce, some governments see artificial intelligence as a solution to alleviate some of the workload.
Amazon Web Services, a subsidiary of Amazon that provides cloud computing services, including Amazon Connect, a cloud-based contact center designed to provide verbal assistance, is one of the tech companies offering products to 911 centers. Carbyne is another emergency communications software company that uses AI for live two-way translation and call triage.
Amazon Connect, for example, is used in Charleston County’s Consolidated Emergency Communication Center for non-emergency calls. When a caller dials the county’s non-emergency number, Amazon Connect will answer and ask what they require assistance with. The system will route the caller to the appropriate resources, freeing up human dispatchers to handle emergency calls. If the system is unable to understand the caller, the call will be routed to a human dispatcher.
The center pays about $2,800 per month for its Amazon Connect subscription, which Jim Lake, the center’s director, claims is less expensive than hiring staff just to answer non-emergency calls. Since March, the system has reduced the volume of calls to the administrative line by 36%, according to Lake.
“Those are calls that our 911 public safety dispatchers do not want to take.” They are not an emergency. So we’re showing them how we’re making their jobs more efficient and allowing them to do more on those emergency calls,” Lake explained.
Several other call centers are using the Amazon Connect system or similar technologies, including the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center in Virginia, the St. Louis County Police Department in Missouri, and the Jefferson County Communications Center Authority in Colorado.
Since Jefferson County began using Amazon Connect’s program in December of last year, AI has handled approximately 40% of the emergency center’s administrative calls.
“We’re processing just under a million calls a year, so handling it through technology — freeing up personnel to handle more acuity-style calls — works much better for us,” said Jeff Streeter, executive director of the center.
While there are concerns that AI will replace dispatchers, many 911 call center leaders emphasize that their goal is to make existing roles more manageable.
“I cannot emphasize enough that it does not eliminate jobs, particularly in the 911 industry.” “It’s there to help them improve their job,” said Jacob Saur, the administrator of the emergency communications center for Arlington County Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management. “I just cannot see in any way, shape or form an automated bot answering a 911 call.”
This viewpoint was shared by Brian Battles, the communications administrative specialist for the St. Louis County Police Department’s Bureau of Communications, which oversees the county’s 911 operations.
“It has been very beneficial to the call takers, who are already overworked,” Battles went on to say. “Anything we can do to relieve that stress while actually providing a more efficient service to the citizens is a no-brainer on our part.”
Dealing with bias and funding
Concerns about bias loom large with AI systems, as they do with other new criminal justice technology.
“All AI models are only as good as their developers,” Daniela Gilbert, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Redefining Public Safety initiative’s director, wrote in an email. She wrote that AI has the potential to replicate human biases on a large scale.
“If these systems are [designed] to take calls, rather than assisting call takers, it would remove a human empathy that is so often essential in crisis situations,” Gilbert wrote in an email. “Imagine being in a time of stress and great need and having to negotiate with a bot.”
If, for example, developers have a bias toward police response, AI systems may overprescribe police involvement when other resources may be more appropriate, Gilbert wrote.
According to Martha Buyer, a telecommunications law attorney and 911 expert, AI systems are prone to errors, which could lead to liability issues. Buyer added that the systems must be able to accommodate a wide range of callers, including those who speak languages other than English or have special needs related to their abilities.
“To have an AI system answer a 911 call — that’s so fraught with liability I don’t even want to think about it,” she went on to say. “Timing is critical.”
Artificial intelligence systems aren’t available everywhere, in part because many dispatch call centers are stuck in a technological time warp, relying on outdated systems that can’t keep up with rapid technological advances.
“The reality is that the 911 system as it is today across the country is still kind of operated off technology that was developed in the 1930s,” Wooten of the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch said. “That technology has to be upgraded, and we have to get that to a point where we understand and it is more equitable.”
Even though cellphones have become ubiquitous, some outdated systems struggle to accurately pinpoint the location of a mobile phone caller. Instead of precise GPS coordinates, these centers may only receive the location of a nearby cell tower, complicating response efforts.
“Nobody ever plans on needing to call 911, so from a government perspective, it’s often pushed to the side in terms of funding,” he said.
Wooten stated that, despite AI’s potential, many centers require basic technological advancements before engaging in artificial intelligence.
“We really have to get the infrastructure in place and taken care of first before we will ever be able to see the benefits and understanding of what other future technologies, whether that be AI or any other future technology.”