Navigating the Digital Frontier: AI’s Increasing Influence on PSAP Operations

By Jeremy Banks – Former Communications Officer with the State of Utah, and Sr. Product Manager, Carbyne windy road

Introduction

180 Million – that’s the number of people who currently use Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools as part of their lives. However during my years as Communications Officer in Utah, the only AI we witnessed was in science fiction movies. What we did witness in real life however is countless emergencies – including the North Salt Lake landslide, Spanish Fork Canyon vehicle explosions, Trolley Square Active Shooting, and innumerable other examples. While Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) during my time under the headset were not necessarily at the bleeding edge in adopting new AI technologies, nowadays many trailblazing communications centers are incorporating AI technologies as part of their workflows. This is because AI can help with many of the challenges faced by PSAPs today.

Challenges

PSAPs face several challenges today. One challenge is the lack of tools in our tool belt when we desperately need them. Another challenge is being forced to do more with less in this age of efficiency and belt-tightening. As a Communications Officer in Utah, whenever I thought about new technology in our PSAPs, it was always important to me to assess and understand the problems that we face and only then consider what technology we want to introduce. Today, I hear a lot of people also being rightfully concerned about whether AI will replace humans, but I don’t share this dystopian view. In my view, AI is not meant to replace Humans. AI is a tool, just like your headset, radios, and CAD – it’s an assisting technology meant to turn heroes into superheroes.

Stress Management

One of the qualifying factors in becoming a hero under the headset (dispatcher or call-taker) is the ability to multitask. But studies have shown that the brain wasn’t designed for heavy-duty multitasking and there are many costs associated with multitasking. In fact, research from my home state of Utah by Dr. David Sanbonmatsu at the University of Utah’s College of Social and Behavioral Science finds that only 2% of the population is actually good at multitasking. The good news is AI tools can help alleviate the stress of multitasking and can handle tedious tasks, and help with verification, thereby allowing our human operators to focus on more important critical decision-making.

Staffing Shortages

One of the unfortunate consequences of the high level of stress in taking emergency calls day in and day out is high employee turnover. This has caused an acute industry-wide staffing shortage. Moreover, the prospect of being traumatized on a daily basis is not exactly a strong selling point for the new generation of employees entering the workforce. The good news is that with AI, the world as we know it has changed for the better. Now we can let the machines work overtime so our overworked staff don’t have to. This new technology would have been a game-changer during my time under the headset in Utah when we were trying to attract new talent. As an example, when I was a dispatcher, one of my favorite activities was investigating – I was what you may call a serial Googler. Having such AI technology in my days for high priority calls, would have dramatically increased my job satisfaction, but would have also meant I spent less time doing tedious tasks.

Finding Needles in the Haystack

One challenge always made our staffing challenges in Utah that much more acute – call surges. Whenever we had major incidents like the Spanish Fork vehicle explosion, or a loose ladder on I15, I remember our staff would be instantly overwhelmed by the spike in calls for service. We had a difficult time differentiating samaritans from callers who needed help themselves – finding the needles in the haystack. One AI technology I’m particularly excited about is the ability to automatically triage incoming emergency calls that are geofenced around a known incident, and letting the AI interact with the Samaritans, and forward the callers in need to humans. An added benefit of this technology is the ability to assist other callers requesting service for an emergency unrelated to the known incident, rather than getting lost in the haystack.

The Road Ahead

As I think about all the amazing technology our PSAPs have at their disposal, I get goosebumps thinking about all the possibilities. To me the future is only limited by our imagination, and I find it so satisfying that nowadays I get to help PSAPs embrace this brave new world of limitless possibilities. If you found my commentary helpful, I invite you to view my recent Webinar on the topic of how AI can help PSAPs overcome their challenges – you can view on-demand for free HERE.

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