Artificial Intelligence: The Future of Technology

Emergency Operations and AI
A photograph of the 911 operations floor at the Fairfax County DPSC. The Arlington County ECC is currently the only center in Virginia using AI within the 911 center, but other areas within the state have started pursuing it.
A photograph of the 911 operations floor at the Fairfax County DPSC. The Arlington County ECC is currently the only center in Virginia using AI within the 911 center, but other areas within the state have started pursuing it.
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Artificial Intelligence is moving into the realm of emergency operations as it makes its way into 911 dispatcher centers across the country. Recently, non-emergent callers in states such as Colorado, Oregon, Maryland, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, have started hearing unfamiliar voices as AI systems have been implemented. Among the dispatcher centers adopting this new technology is the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center (ECC). 

Tim Kane, Operations Manager at the Arlington County ECC, is responsible for everything that goes on on the operations floor. Whether helping with time efficiency, business practices, or providing the necessary training and resources, Kane manages the Operations Supervisors who then manage the employees at the center. He has also been a part of the AI implementation process from the beginning. 

The Arlington County ECC receives about 9,000 911 calls and 16-17,000 administration calls per month, according to Kane. In addition, other situations like parking and fire alarm issues make up about 36,000 additional calls each year. Before the implementation of AI, 911 call takers were responsible for answering both administrative and emergency calls, taking time away from those who needed it most. “The more calls we can handle through AI, the fewer opportunities that someone who could take an emergency call is going to be tied up on an admin call,” said Kane. The use of AI now allows previously overloaded operators to handle emergency calls, guaranteeing callers in emergent situations a source of assistance. “We have an issue in 911 nationally where we’re unable to staff to the level we need to be staffed at, so I think a lot of people are looking at AI as a resource,” said Kane.  

The goal of AI at the Arlington center was to reduce 911 operator call volumes by 30 percent. The Arlington County ECC became the fourth center in the U.S. to work with Amazon Connect to bring the AI resource to life and to regulate the amount of radio traffic received. Amazon Connect works with companies to implement services like AI, transforming the way a company may interact with their customers. Other centers also utilizing Amazon Connect AI have communicated with one another, sharing their accomplishments, struggles, and workflows. 

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At the beginning of the transition, AI would answer non-emergent calls, tell the caller to hang up and dial 911 if it was an emergency, and if not, it would listen to the reasoning behind the call to properly connect the caller with a telecommunicator. As the technology has advanced, work flows have been programmed into the AI for certain common necessities, like providing URLs to report situations online, providing services to individuals without having to talk to someone. “AI has handled that call that would have been answered by a 911 call taker and dispatcher and processed it, given the person the resource to report what they wanted to report, [all] without us having to speak to them directly,” said Kane. Workflows can also be pre-programmed for certain events and situations most relevant to the area around the ECC.

Though the field of AI is rapidly expanding, there are drawbacks to the system implementers have considered. Information Systems Division Chief at the Fairfax County Department of Public Safety Communications (DPSC), Steve McMurrer said, “I’m in support of Artificial Intelligence. We’re making plans to use it. I think it has to be done in a way that is useful to the public. You have to be careful about how you implement these systems because people want to talk to a real person in a time of need.” McMurrer is the head of the Information Technology (IT) section within Public Safety Communications, overseeing the administration and making sure key systems are up and running.

“I think there might be some push back from people who don’t want to use computers and other things,” said McMurrer. “They want to do things the old fashioned way by talking to a real person.” In addition to technological hesitancy, concerns regarding the lack of human empathy of AI and job displacement have been recognized by implementers. McMurrer also notes how malicious calls may be better picked up by a human than a computer as AI does not contain human judgment, possibly resulting in system manipulation and the consumption of resources. Though it is dependent on the 911 call taker, employees may struggle with mental health as they are no longer answering both non-emergent and emergency calls. Nonetheless, McMurrer believes AI is a benefit to the 911 community, as long as it is implemented in the right way. 

Kane believes AI is not something that should be used on the 911 emergency line. He’s unsure whether or not it will be a possibility in the future. “Some people feel it’s a little impersonal, but the majority of people I’d say that are under 35 do everything on their phone anyhow,” he said. “Most people would just like the convenience of being able to know, ‘hey, I was heard, I made this report, it verified I made this report, so I’ve done my job.’”    

The Fairfax County DPSC is currently in the process of implementing a set of tools that utilizes AI. One of its functions at the center will be for automatic language translation. 911 call takers dealing with a caller who speaks a different language requires a third party to help with translations. Though this is the traditional way 911 centers go about the situation, it can result in delays, not allowing for the maximum amount of efficiency possible. The system they are working with runs the call through five to seven language engines which provides the call takers and dispatchers with an automatic transcription of what the individual needs. Though it is still a work in progress and third parties may still be necessary with the AI as a double checker, Fairfax County hopes to implement the system after it goes through the testing stages. “I think that AI and machine learning have the capability to help us solve the staffing problem which is a prominent problem in 911,” said McMurrer. Moreover, the Fairfax County DPSC is working on enhancing the capabilities on its non-emergency line. 

Technological advancements like AI are spanning across the globe, impacting company operations and day to day interactions. “I think it’ll be bigger than just us using it in ECC’s,” said Kane. “We’re kind of pioneering it for the county and I think that it’ll probably be an enterprise solution for county government at some point.” Whether seen as a blessing or a curse, AI technology seems as if it is here to stay as we evolve further and further into the modern technologies of the future. “People are resistant to change, so some people don’t really understand or [they] are concerned about it, but the longer it has been in place, I think the more people have come to get used to it.”