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COMMENTARY | Using technology to divert administrative and non-emergency calls from 911 centers keeps crews focused on their high impact jobs and makes it easier for communities to hire and retain qualified dispatchers.
When emergency strikes—car accidents, break-ins, domestic disputes, cardiac arrest, the list goes on—communities rely on their 911 dispatchers to quickly answer the call, assess the situation and send first responder teams to help. But how does this high-pressure job impact the lives of those dispatchers on the other end of the phone?
Emergency services dispatchers are “always on” during their 10-12-hour shifts, which can easily extend to 16 hours depending on staffing shortages. They also manage more than 180 call types, and for some agencies, dispatchers are required to answer 90% of 911 calls within 15 seconds and 99% within 40 seconds.
Through long days and mentally taxing calls, dispatchers work to maintain a helpful demeanor that keeps citizens calm and engaged on the line as they work with complex tracking and dispatching technology.
Recognizing the toll the position can take on mental and physical health, Jeffcom911 in Jefferson County, Colorado, has invested in technology to ease workloads on emergency dispatchers by reducing the number of non-emergency calls they receive.
The strategy has not only improved the morale and performance of dispatchers, it has in turn reduced call response times so that in an emergency, residents can quickly connect with a dispatcher and get the swift and critical service needed.
Creating New Channels for Reporting Non-Emergencies
In 2021, Jeffcom911 officials evaluated existing technology to identify how they could create alternative avenues for residents reporting non-emergencies that would reduce the strain on dispatchers who were answering 80+ administrative calls a day. They determined that by updating IT systems, the telecommunications center could ensure residents reporting non-emergency issues get the services needed and dispatchers were better positioned to quickly respond to emergency calls.
Jeffcom911 created the nation's first online reporting capability for non-emergency requests for public safety services. Residents complete a form on the Jeffcom911 website or mobile app that feeds service requests directly into the county’s computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, system. Staff members review each entry for completeness and either forward the service request to the appropriate department or call the submitter for additional information.
Another way Jeffcom911 reduced the volume of calls to emergency dispatchers was by using artificial intelligence and machine learning to answer non-emergency calls and transfer those callers to other local entities to assist with the request, such as the county jail or municipal animal control.
Previously, when a citizen called the Jeffcom911 non-emergency line for a situation that required public safety response, such as an illegally parked car, a communications specialist would take that call and process it, sending the data to an emergency dispatcher who would then send the appropriate resources. Now, the AI can send the caller a link to Jeffcom911’s online report web page where the citizen provides the information directly to a dispatcher, decreasing back and forth communication for both the citizen and the dispatch staff. AI also has allowed callers to bypass waiting in a queue altogether by being directed to provide information via an online report.
This process has reduced the number of calls requiring a 911 dispatcher to transfer service for an administrative or informational request by 40%, reducing workload and burnout and ensuring that 911 call takers can stay laser focused on emergency calls.
In the future, Jeffcom911 plans to build more complex and thorough call flows and will continue updating and improving online forms so AI chatbots can direct citizens to the correct services and resources to assist with their needs.
Integrating APIs and Leveraging the Cloud to Support Remote Work
Adequate staffing is critical to 911 centers’ ability to respond and process all inbound calls and requests for both triaging non-emergency situations and dispatching emergency responses in a timely manner. Nationwide, hiring and retaining qualified 911 dispatchers is a challenge. The role requires a wide variety of diverse skills: resiliency, critical listening and thinking, multi-tasking, data entry, memory recall, effective communication, map reading and interpersonal relations, to name a few.
To attract new applicants, retain current staff and continually meet the demands of the community, Jeffcom911 deployed an application programming interface, or API, that connects a cloud-based call center service into the CAD to support remote workers who can handle non-emergency calls. Employees can access the systems needed to take calls and process CAD operations from their homes and remote locations—meeting the flexibility needs and reality of today’s workforce. Jeffcom911 even created a role for a part-time, administrative and remote communications specialist to support non-emergency calls.
Jeffcom911 received three times the applications for open positions in 2022 compared to 2021, reached its maximum staffing capacity and, most importantly, reduced the volume of non-emergency calls going to in-office emergency dispatchers.
Using Technology to Support the Humans on the Other End of 911
911 centers must continue to innovate to help the people on the receiving end of a 911 call be most efficient and stay focused on the critical incidents that need immediate support. Technology is the best way for 911 telecommunication centers to keep their people at the center of all operational decisions and investments.
As we continue to face nationwide staffing shortages, attracting new talent and retaining current talent will require creating a culture of support for dispatchers. In the stability of the safety ecosystem, technology plays a critical role in supporting the heroes that answer the call when things go awry.
Mike Brewer is deputy director of the Jefferson County Communications Center Authority. Steve Cover is chief technology officer at CentralSquare Technologies.