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The Human Element in Emergency Dispatching: Can Chatterbot Technology Carry the Torch for a Modern 9-1-1 System?

Author: Michael Foxen, Beverly Hills Police Department

Date: 2017-12-14
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This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning & action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

This journal article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it; creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

The views and conclusions expressed in this Command College Futures Project and journal article are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the CA Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).

Officer Smith knew this radio call was going to be unique from the moment the 9-1-1 dispatcher broadcast the robbery suspect was last seen walking away from the scene “carrying a torch.” Smith was surprised to hear such a suspect description, but he’d been an officer long enough to know that there is always something new to see in police work. Smith was confident that it would be a simple task to spot a man carrying a burning torch at night in the middle of a residential neighborhood. As he scoured the area looking for the telltale signs of a burning torch, such as flickering bright light and smoke from the open flame, Officer Smith heard the first unit to arrive on the scene broadcast the suspect they were searching for was carrying a flashlight, not a torch. As almost an afterthought, the dispatcher said, “Our victim is from England.”

Should a 9-1-1 dispatcher be expected to recognize that a person with a “British” accent may refer to a flashlight as a torch? Our 9-1-1 dispatchers are only human after all. But do they need to be? 

9-1-1 Dispatch – Chatterbots Advance 

The importance of an effective and reliable 9-1-1 emergency service that can meet the needs of modern society is paramount to respond to the needs of modern-day end users to maintain the public’s faith in the 9-1-1 system. Existing 9-1-1 emergency operations, initiated in the State of Alabama in 1968, have been expanded and improved upon to where they now cover nearly the entire nation. Legacy 9-1-1 emergency operations systems, such as that in California, however, are undergoing modernization into the next generation of 9-1-1 systems. This will include the development or modernization of applications like text and video to 9-1-1 and dynamic call routing between Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPS), making the system better suited to service in the 21st century.(1)

Chatterbot and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies as a part of PSAP capacities also have the potential to significantly enhance, or even replace, the human element as the core of its operations. A chatterbot (also chatbot or simply, bot) is a computer program that conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods. Such programs are often designed to convincingly simulate how a human would behave as a conversational partner. The rise of social media has brought with it advancements in AI, chatterbots, and other associated technologies such as natural language processing (NLP), speech analysis, and predictive analytics. Each of these advances puts us closer to using these technologies to displace people now filling that role. Natural language processing is what allows an automated system to properly direct your call when you speak into the phone. Speech analysis can analyze the caller’s tone, vocabulary, sentiment, and even silences to gauge emotion and satisfaction. Speech analysis, combined with predictive analytics, can also detect when a caller is on the verge of getting frustrated or angry - or even predict when a caller is lying or trying to commit fraud.(2)



Private industry has been increasing its efforts to develop AI technology for conversational purposes, which can be experienced today with Siri, Alexa, and voice remote applications. The battle for artificial-intelligence expertise is forcing Apple Inc. to grapple with its famous penchant for secrecy, as tech companies seek to woo talent in a discipline not known for its openness. Talking up transparency is unusual for a company whose chief executive, Tim Cook, once joked that it is more secretive than the Central Intelligence Agency. The shift is driven by AI’s growing importance in areas like self-driving cars and voice assistants such as Siri. Rivals including Alphabet Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Facebook Inc. have been racing for years to gather talent in the field—largely by recruiting Ph.D. students and professors from university computer-science programs.(3)

Chatbots hold the potential to one day replace the tasks of many human workers with AI programs sophisticated enough to hold fluent conversations with human users. Banks, other financial institutions, and healthcare providers in particular will benefit from increased use of chatbots which are getting smarter thanks to advances in AI, according to UK-based Juniper Research. Juniper forecasts that this technology could save businesses $8 billion annually worldwide by 2022, up from $20 million this year. Much of the savings from that automation will come from cutting jobs from existing call centers and customer support sites. While Americans have long worried about losing jobs to countries with lower-cost labor, it seems clear that many of those jobs are instead going to be lost to automation. Smarter chatbots will be able to do more than help check your banking balance. As they get smarter, they will even be able to help people get medical diagnoses, according to Juniper. That’s why IBM and the rest of the tech universe are pushing their own artificial intelligence efforts hard. There’s big money to be made.(4) The potential for cost saving benefits to be realized in the public sector through the use of AI, and how those funds could be redirected for the benefit of the public, must be a point of consideration for public officials.



Part of Routine Public Sector Service

Advancements in chatterbot and AI technology are occurring at a rapid pace and have the potential to save public entities a substantial sum of money. The technology is being adopted by private businesses as a means to improve service to customers and to save money. Most utilization of the technology currently is used in the customer service arena. There is a great potential for the technology to improve service to 9-1-1 callers, improve response times and reduce costs. The recruiting, retention, and labor costs that 9-1-1 human dispatchers alone could promote more reliance on chatterbot technology. Chatterbots can speak multiple languages. They answer the call on the first ring. They don’t call in sick, file lawsuits, workers compensation claims or demand pay raises. As technology advances, their interactions with callers will be indiscernible from human dispatchers. According to Jensen Huang, CEO of Nvidia, “whether it’s having a real-world holodeck, or whether it manifests itself in robotics, I am super excited about that… Cybernetics, robotics, artificial intelligence: That whole field is super exciting, and I think we’re going to see a lot of advancements there in the next few years.(5)


9-1-1 Centers Run By Chatterbots

There are a myriad of issues that will need to be addressed before the “Chatterbot 911” can be effectively utilized in 9-1-1 operations at a full service level. Tesla founder and Chief Executive Elon Musk has expressed his concerns regarding the threat that unregulated artificial intelligence could pose to society. In a July 2017 speech at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in Rhode Island, Musk said the government needs to proactively regulate artificial intelligence before there is no turning back, describing it as the "biggest risk we face as a civilization." Musk added that regulation of AI needs to be done now because of the bureaucratic nature of it.(6)

Regulations, such as those called for by Elon Musk, will need to be developed to manage AI and related technologies to provide safeguards to the public and the operators of the systems as well. In addition, privacy, continuity of service, and liability concerns will also need to be addressed. Standard use requirements will have to be developed for the entire industry to insure compatibility with all emergency service operation networks. Public sector unions and political interests will have their own set of concerns to be met. In spite of possible obstacles, as emergency service operators work to modernize and improve the 9-1-1 emergency service system, advancements in chatterbot and AI technology need to be considered as a means of improving the performance of the system. Modern society expects rapid and accurate responses to its customer service needs. Emergency service operators will need to improve service capabilities in order to meet these expectations. Chatterbot and AI technology appear to be an obvious and available answer to this challenge.

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Bringing Siri To Your Dispatch Centers – Sooner, Not Later

A recent rash of disruptions in antiquated 9-1-1 emergency-response systems points to the urgent need for new technology to save lives in the wireless age. The incidents demonstrate the need for states and localities to switch to the newest “next-generation” Internet-based technology that uses digital routing instead of old-fashioned phone lines with switches. Internet-based systems are better capable of handling cellphone traffic that is subject to accidental or malicious misuse.

The newest Internet-based technology “offers a wider suite of defensive tools” for call centers, said Trey Forgety, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which represents government agencies and private firms involved in the emergency system.(7)

Those responsible for governing 9-1-1 systems must monitor developments in chatterbot and AI technology to identify those best suited for the public safety industry. A public/private sector partnership with AI developers would be an effective means of rapidly developing technologies and systems that will be effective in addressing the specific needs of 9-1-1 emergency service operations. Developed technologies should be shared and assessed throughout the industry to ascertain the best technologies to be ultimately selected as the industry standard. The rapid progression of chatterbot and AI technologies in the private sector suggests that the technology will ultimately work its way into 9-1-1 emergency service operations.(8)

To what degree and at what pace is difficult to assess. A breakthrough in the technology that could reach the point where callers will not be able to differentiate a conversation with a human or chatterbot could be around the corner. Major players in the industry are actively working on reaching that goal today. The potential for chatterbot and AI technology to revolutionize 9-1-1 emergency service operations is too great to be unreasonably delayed or ignored. The advantages of adopting these technologies seem to outweigh potential disadvantages. There will be issues that need to be dealt with in due time in order to maintain the public’s faith in the system. System continuity, personal privacy, and legal issues are the most paramount of these concerns. The human element will always be a critical component of 9-1-1 emergency service operations, whether it is in the planning, programming or operational stages of the system. At some point, it is apparent; chatterbots and artificial intelligence will begin to carry the torch of 9-1-1 emergency service operations into the future.  


Michael Foxen is a Lieutenant with the Beverly Hills California Police Department. He has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from California Lutheran University.



(1). "9-1-1 Origin & History - National Emergency Number Association." 9-1-1 Origin & History - National Emergency Number Association. Accessed February 20, 2017.

(2). Marr, Bernard. "How Analytics, Big Data and AI Are Changing Call Centers Forever." Forbes. October 06, 2016. Accessed February 20, 2017.

(3). Mickle, Tripp. "Secretive Apple Tries to Open Up on Artificial Intelligence." Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2017. September 3, 2017. Accessed September 3, 2017.

(4). Darrow, Barb. "Those Annoying Chatbots Can Save Business Billions." May 10, 2017. Accessed June 7, 2017.

(5). Etherington, Darrell. "AI everywhere." May 5, 2017. Accessed May 10, 2017.

(6). "Elon Musk says artificial intelligence is humanity's 'biggest risk'." July 17, 2017. Accessed July 17, 2017.

(7). Henderson, Tim . "911 systems are getting old, and the public can be in danger when they fail." April 1, 2017. Accessed April 3, 2017.

(8). Lee, Parker. "Most Government Workers Could Easily be Replaced by Robots, Scientific Study Finds." February 10, 2017. Accessed February 11, 2017.



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