Understaffed 911 call centers across the country field non-emergency calls about stray animals or noise complaints on top of their workload of answering serious reports of medical emergencies, crimes and even death.
Officials in Charleston County, South Carolina, however, are now leveraging artificial intelligence to streamline non-emergency calls in an effort to free up 911 operators to focus on getting first responders to the scene of emergency incidents as quickly as possible.
“Our job is to serve the public the best way we can. So, I am not in any way demeaning anyone from the public, but someone who has their favorite cat stuck in a tree, that’s an emergency for them as compared to someone’s just been shot,” Jim Lake, director of the Charleston County Consolidated Emergency Communications Center, told Fox News Digital in a recent phone interview.
“I can’t in good conscience say to a family, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t get to your cardiac arrest call fast enough because I was taking a call on feral cats.’”
Lake is part of an informal group of 911 call center leaders across the U.S. called the “Early Adopters,” who collaborate and discuss how to integrate cutting-edge technology into their offices amid staffing shortages that have long plagued the industry.
“We focus on retention and hiring, but we also had to look at ways of reducing our workload,” Lake said of his office.
Similar to other centers in the Early Adopters program, Lake said he teamed up with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to integrate an AI-powered system that can answer administrative, non-emergency calls to help free up the workload for human telecommunicators to answer tragic and pressing calls.
The 911 call center embraced AWS’ Amazon Connect system and rolled out an AI call taker named “Matthew.” It fields all calls to the office’s administrative line, which is known as the “7200 number,” referring to the last four digits of its phone number.
“[Callers] dial that 7200 number, and that line is already corded into the Amazon cloud, so it doesn’t even ring in our center initially. It will then get screened by Amazon Connect … we’ve already named [the AI call taker] Matthew. He’s our favorite call taker,” Lake said.
Callers are then prompted to indicate on their phone’s keypad if they wish to proceed in English or Spanish. The call will time out if the caller does not press their keypad, Lake said, in order to force “humans to take an action so that we don’t tie up our calls with robo calls.”
Matthew then asks callers to “please provide a brief description for your call. And you can say things like ‘animal control’ or ‘check the welfare,’ so we’re kind of prompting them. Then based on what they say, they either get ported into the animal control workflow or the check the welfare workflow, or if it’s not something we’ve already programmed, it goes to a call taker,” Lake said.
The system is trained to recognize certain keywords, and if it has any trouble understanding a caller, it transfers the call to a human. The system will also clarify with a caller that an animal control call, for example, is not an immediate threat by asking if the animal is in danger or a person is being threatened. Callers are sent to humans if there is a pressing threat.
“We configure Amazon Connect,” Lake said. “As an example, we get multiple calls about fireworks each Fourth of July. We set up a workflow so that the caller could identify which municipality they were in, and then we provided the fireworks rules for that municipality. When you mentioned COVID, Amazon Connect could [have] allowed us to pre-screen callers or provide information without having to talk to a telecommunicator.”
Amazon Connect works in tandem with an online reporting system called 911HelpMe, through which callers are texted a link to the online form to fill out. Lake said his office created the online reporting form after 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that devastated communities in Texas and Louisiana and left 911 call centers inundated.
“They fill out the form and that information will come to our center. But now I have a slightly different workforce that’s handling that. So, I have people that have lesser training, and maybe even in some cases don’t handle emergency calls. They’re handling these digital reports,” Lake said.
Meanwhile, seasoned human operators are able to focus on reports such as cardiac arrests, shootings and other crimes or fires.
The systems have already shown great success at cutting down the number of non-emergency calls that were previously handled by human 911 operators, Lake said.
He also said that between May 22 and Aug. 16, out of the 1,346 animal control calls to Matthew, 660 were handled by the 911HelpMe form.
“That means that approximately 40% of those calls were handled by our online reporting,” Lake said. “The interesting added benefit to this is we printed out business cards for our animal control personnel. And they’re handing these out to people that are generally frequent flyers or they have pets, even to our pet shelter. They’re now going directly to 911HelpMe.com instead of even calling the phone number.”
A recent report from the National Emergency Number Association found that an estimated 82% of 911 call centers across the country are understaffed to some degree. Of the operators still in the job, 75% reported in the study feel burned out.
Lake said it will likely be another year and a half of using the Amazon Connect tool until the office sees how it benefits job retention.
He highlighted that 911 operators go into the job knowing they will be speaking with people on the worst days of their lives, but what they don’t always account for is the administrative calls about comparatively innocuous reports or complaints.
“When I talk to my people in the job, they say that the 911 calls are not as stressful as the administrative calls because, in most cases, they know it’s an emergency. That’s what they’re here for,” he said.
Lake explained there are “lows” of the job, such as someone calling 911 to report they are going to commit suicide and request police respond to the scene before loved ones, or in one particular case, a 911 operator at his office was still on the line with a woman as a man shot and killed her. While “highs” for the operators include helping a woman deliver a baby over the phone or successfully coaching someone through CPR.
“But then, if you pick up the call and somebody’s calling to complain about feral cats in their yard, I think those highs and lows are really what affect them the most,” he said.