In an emergency, every second matters

“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”

Jennifer Siracusa spent 14 years answering 9-1-1 calls. She spoke to thousands of citizens, paramedics, and firefighters, providing life-saving instructions over the phone and radio. “People are living today,” she said, “and have fulfilled lives and families because of operators” like herself. In each call, she had just seconds to make quick decisions that would ultimately affect lives. An estimated 240 million 9-1-1 calls are placed in the US annually. Answering them is a considerable responsibility with significant consequences. It’s also a highly complex process.

“What people think is a simple medical call in the civilian world touches multiple people in the 9-1-1 telecommunicators’ world,” said Jay English. An engineer and former 9-1-1 Director who also served in the US Air Force, English is the Chief Technology Officer of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International. APCO International is the largest association of public safety communications professionals providing more than 30,000 members with expertise, professional development, technical assistance, advocacy, and outreach.

“Every incident is complex in a different way,” English said. Both he and Siracusa, APCO’S software sales coordinator, have deep experience working in emergency communications centers (ECCs)—centers that handle inbound 9-1-1 calls and dispatch first responders. A motor vehicle crash with minor injuries, for example, requires police, fire, and EMS response: three disciplines, all requiring different sets of information. Police need to know where the vehicle is, whether it’s stopping traffic, and if there’s a criminal infraction. Firefighters need to know whether they’ll be cutting anyone out of the car. And EMS need to know the patient(s)’ condition.

One telecommunicator is responsible for fielding those three sets of questions and dealing with a multifaceted response tree. All in an extremely time sensitive situation. “Every second we save in assessing the situation, and every second we save processing the call efficiently and getting accurate information out to the responders equates to how quickly the response occurs,” English said. And that’s where IBM comes in, partnering to provide the APCO IntelliComm™ solution supported by Watson Analytics. IntelliComm works to ensure telecommunicators receive the most appropriate information in order to give rapid, consistent, and customized instructions.

Rethink AI in public safety

Designed to be used by public safety telecommunicators nationwide, IntelliComm includes electronic guide cards that can be adjusted by agencies to meet their specific needs. Additionally, IntelliComm gives telecommunicators the ability to handle multiple aspects of an incident (law enforcement, fire, and EMS) within a single application that is easy to navigate and manage.

IntelliComm’s potential is multifold, according to Siracusa and English.When Siracusa first began working as a telecommunicator, she used paper flip cards with printed instructions. That’s still the case in some ECCs. But even centers that have gone digital still work on a card-based desktop system that’s not integrated with other systems. There’s often no ability to toggle back and forth between emergency responders’ disciplines. One button can send a telecommunicator to the wrong form or question. With IntelliComm, “the tools are right there,” Siracusa said. IntelliComm automates various processes that were previously manual—many of which impact the quality assurance (QA) process.Quality assurance has always been an imperative for ECCs. “We learn from our mistakes,” English said, “and from what we do right.”

Legacy systems have typically been able to QA just 10-20 percent of calls received due to bandwidth and time constraints. Focusing only on certain call types or criteria can cause ECCs to lose sight of the big picture.“One of the things IntelliComm automates is a large part of the QA process,” English said. “It takes the call information as detailed in the IntelliComm application and passes it into the QA process automatically.” That gives ECCs the potential to verify every single call, and the ability to verify a much larger variety of calls.

In Siracusa’s time as a supervisor, she noticed that the calls that were QA’d were of a similar nature—cardiac calls, for example—leaving the center and staff without insights into how they were handling other types of calls. “Given the opportunity to QA up to 100 percent, we will be able to point out not just where we are lacking, but where we’re doing well,” Siracusa said. That’s critical: “In this world, we tend to notice what we do wrong.”

The opportunity to catch it all—failures and successes—will also help with job retention. “From a management perspective, you always hear about the negative,” English said. Sharing what an employee did well will motivate and retain employees. There’s value in showing how changing the tone of voice, for example, made a positive difference in a given situation.

For APCO, IntelliComm is just the beginning. As Watson helps telecommunicators assess calls and provide accurate information in real time, data will be aggregated and analyzed with Watson Analytics—Watson will learn based on successful and unsuccessful outcomes. In the future, those analytics will provide ECC directors critical feedback in near real time.

Additional future capabilities can also include real-time tone and sentiment analysis of callers and telecommunicators. If a call escalates or deteriorates, the system will automatically notify a supervisor (currently a manual process).

“Telecommunicators are the professionals who are saving lives. APCO’s passion for these people is so strong,” Siracusa said. “Everything we have, everything we do, is for them.”

Learn more about IBM’s emergency management and public safety solutions