St. Louis County hopes artificial intelligence will reduce wait times for 911 calls
The St. Louis County Police Department has tapped artificial intelligence technology to reduce 911 wait times for county residents.
“We are trying to provide prompt, efficient and accurate service to first responders in the community,” said Brian Battles, the administrative specialist for the department’s Bureau of Communications. “But over the last three years, we noticed a decrease in the amount of applications that we've taken for the public safety dispatcher position, while the workload has increased. We were not able to keep up with that under the direction we were going.”
Dispatchers handle about 2,000 calls a day, split roughly 50/50 between 911 and nonemergency issues like how to get a copy of a police report. Priority always goes to 911 calls, Battles said, but once dispatchers get on a nonemergency call, they cannot switch if an emergency call comes in.
“And you’re locked into a 5–minute conversation with somebody on a nonemergency call in which you're not going to be able to provide them any assistance anyway,” he said. That can leave someone who needs 911 waiting for the next available operator.
In order to free up dispatchers for 911 calls, the bureau needed to find a way to divert nonemergency calls. After consulting with other agencies and looking at national trends, Battles said, the department signed a contract with AT&T, which uses an intelligent voice assistant from Five9.
Since the system went live in March, Battles said, the volume of nonemergency calls answered by dispatchers has decreased by 60%.
All 911 calls are still handled by dispatchers, Battles said. But those who dial the nonemergency line (636-529-8210) will have their call answered by a voice asking them “to please state the nature of your call.” The system is programmed to recognize key words and phrases, and then route the caller to the correct department, though they will get to a live person if the system incorrectly routes them twice.
Matt Crecelius, business manager for the St. Louis County Police Officers Association, called the system “a great benefit to the community and our emergency dispatchers” by making workloads more manageable.
Donald Wunsch, director of the Kummer Institute’s Center for Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, said residents should give the system a chance.
“The chances are that more often than not, this system is likely to forward you to as good a direction as the random person operating that system would be,” he said. “Even when you get to a human, it's kind of annoying if you have to get forwarded five times before you get to the right human.”