AI stepping in to assist 911 operators battered by tragic calls, understaffing

Answering frantic calls of suicide, car accidents or a child choking are daily realities for 911 operators, who often never get closure on the tragedies they experience on the other end of a phone line. 

With the help of artificial intelligence, operators’ mental health could be bolstered at a time when the majority of call centers are understaffed and as operators still reel from the chaos caused by the pandemic and its lockdowns. 

"People are at the forefront of 911, and our 911 telecommunicators, the people who answer the calls, are such valuable assets, but we're putting them in a bad situation on a daily basis. They are communicating with people in the worst moments of their lives, and they are in situations that don't end well and are very traumatic," North Central Texas Emergency Communications District (NCT911) Director Christy Williams told Fox News Digital in a phone interview. 

NCT911 is responsible for supporting more 40 emergency communications centers across 14 counties in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, and has been using innovative technology such as AI to help strengthen call centers in recent years, Williams said. 

Currently, Williams and her team are working with Amazon Web Services, a subsidiary of Amazon that provides cloud computing services for companies, to test a program that would monitor calls fielded by operators and flag when an operator has had repeated tragic conversations. 

"As a 911 telecommunicator, you might spend 45 minutes on a suicide call, hang up, and immediately that phone rings and you have to pick it up and say, ‘911 Where's your emergency’ and start working all over again. And over time, this can really create some severe mental health issues," Williams said. 

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 they feel burned out. 

Williams said the job has long had a high turn-over rate, which spiraled during the pandemic and labeled a "crisis" as operators worked day in and out while the majority of the nation hunkered down at home. 

Now, with the help of AI, Williams said the program they’re testing tracks when an operator is having an especially rough day or week with tragic calls, and flags a supervisor that the operator needs a break. 

The program will monitor calls for keywords and the tone of the caller and keep tabs on whether a call was especially stressful. 

"We want the artificial intelligence to be able to tag any calls that we think might be jeopardizing the mental health of a telecommunicator," Williams said. The system would then tally how many stressful calls an operator has had by the end of their shift, or even mid-shift, and flag a supervisor if the operator needs to be taken off the floor and unwind in a quiet room. 

Williams said that her mission, and others leading 911 call centers, is to save lives, and that turning to AI to help streamline work or to keep employees happier has been a beneficial tool. 

"People reach burnout or suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder based on what they're faced with every day. So we are working with AWS and looking to find solutions to track calls and the telecommunicators that answer them so that … a supervisor would know that, ‘Hey, this individual has had five bad calls today or this week,’" she said. 

She pointed to other AI platforms, such as ones that translate foreign languages or transcribe calls in real-time, utilized by her colleagues in the field that have already shaved off response times and likely saved lives. 

One platform currently offered by software firm Carbyne can translate Spanish-language 911 calls to English for the operator, shaving off minutes of punting calls to a translator. Carbyne just announced it will roll out an even more revolutionary translation system in the coming weeks when both the Spanish-speaking caller and English-speaking operator will be translated for the other to understand. 

For Williams, she's hoping other emergency call centers will embrace AI and stressed how mentally and emotionally-draining fielding 911 calls can be. 

"Many of [the operators] never get the resolution of the call. If you're helping a parent deliver CPR to their child before the ambulance arrives, once the ambulance is on scene, the 911 call ends. So you never hear if the baby lived or didn't live. So there's a lack of closure," Williams said.

But as call centers test the AI software that can flag repeated tragic calls, Williams said she and others "feel like this is going to be a game changer change for retaining employees."