July 4th | 9‑1‑1 | Fireworks – A Perilous Combo?

Back in 1980, when I was a police dispatcher in Sparta New Jersey, I can remember that inevitably every year on July 4th at about 8:00 PM, nearly every line on the phone would light up. For the most part, the conversation would go something like this:

Me:      “Sparta Police, dispatch”
Caller:  “Uhhm . . . yeah . . .  Can you tell me what time the fireworks start?”
Me:      “Same as last year sir, at dusk, usually right around 9:00PM”
Caller:  “OK . . . Thanks”

Not every call asked this, there were some interspersed inquiries:

Me:      “Sparta Police, dispatch”
Caller:  “Uhhm . . . yeah . . .  Can you tell me where I can WATCH the fireworks?”
Me:      “Probably in the sky . . . ”
[OK, so maybe my snarky attitude wanted to say this, but of course I remained professional]

The SAME call scenario then repeated for nearly the next hour, over and over and over. Much of the time, every available line would be lit, and every caller had the same question. In a way, it was almost comical.  The residents of these 3 tiny municipalities, a total population of 30,000, were under my care, but I was unable to help them in an emergency as I was tied up answering these calls. There I sat, all by myself, hoping and praying that no one was experiencing a REAL emergency and needed a real response for help. In an effort to break up the monotony, at times, I answered the phone with:

Me:      “Sparta Police, dispatch . . . the fireworks start at dusk”z
There was usually a long silence and they would respond, slightly confused
Caller:  “Uhhm . . . Thank you?”

Eventually, just as this rash of calls started to diminish, the next wave started to come in:

Me:      “Sparta Police, dispatch”
Caller:  “OK, hi . . . so . . .  there are a bunch of kids with fireworks over on East Shore Trail”
Me:      “Ok, can you tell me what any of them are wearing or which way they are heading?”
Caller:  “Nope, but they are raising hell over here and I am trying to sleep”

But that was 40 years ago, and times were very different. The communications technology was in its infancy, and everything was written down on punch cards, and time-stamped on a time clock (ka-chunk, ka-chunk). There was no 9‑1‑1 in my center, just POTS lines on a 1A2 Key system. Heck, while 9-1-1 may have existed somewhere in NJ back then, I didn’t know of anyone in the State that had it; and as for caller ID? Yeah, right! Ha ha ha! That was still a far-off fantasy. Back then, we worked under the bare minimums. Today, with four decades of techno-babble under my belt, quite a bit of self-taught programming in BASIC, QuickBasic+ and a little bit of C+, my favorite new word has become ‘workflow’ or scripting. At the core, a program is based on a flow chart. A list of actions and decisions that happen in a logical predefined order to create some effect or outflow of data. I quickly realized that when workflow was applied to nearly any problem, the resulting solution was often both effective and innovative. I may have automated a monotonous task.

The number of times I typed:
to do an NCIC check, has to number in the tens of thousands. . . .

or it may have just provided consistency in the data entry. In fact, some of the most innovative ideas are simply a combination of tasks strung together to solve a problem.

This is where AI can directly lend itself to enhance any industry – through automation. There should be no great surprise, as industry has realized this back when Ford implemented the Assembly line. But, before I get too deep into this particular topic, I want to make one thing perfectly clear to my readers, while artificial intelligence can greatly assist in making decisions, we are not talking about totally autonomous AI. Realistically, we are likely still a long way off from true artificial intelligence. This is because common sense is not always a binary decision. But, one thing that we can benefit from today is the mathematic probability and the assistive advice that AI can provide. This is where we need to start to change our thinking, especially in areas of public safety or critical life affecting decisions, such as the medical field.

I’m liking this to the change in thinking that has taken place with testing in schools. When I was growing up, calculators still we’re still uncommon. Bringing one into a test would be considered ‘cheating’. Now, along with the text books that are required for a particular class, advanced engineering courses require a scientific calculator, and often suggest several models. Keeping this frame of thought in mind, let’s revisit the first example I mentioned previously in this blog, but this time, I’ll apply some assistive AI logic, and present this solution in the form of a simple flowchart:


The simplified logic here is fairly easy to understand. When a call arrives, the following decision points are considered.

• . Do I have a Call Taker Available?
• . If I do, then deliver the call. If I don’t, then determine if:
• . Is it July 4th between 20:00 and 21:00?
• . If not, que to the call takers, but if it is, intercept and play an informational message about where the fireworks are, and even direct them to the web for more information and safety tips.

Ideally this could eliminate many of the calls from tying up call takers, but those that need to speak to them are placed in queue, or routed elsewhere

This is done easily as once we play the message, we ask if they need further assistance, and disconnect, queue as needed, or even branch further to other common information resources.

Plan 9 from Outer Space?

Now, here is where we can really get a little far out with a solution.

By prompting the caller with an IVR, we can ask them if they’re calling from a mobile device?
(remember, in many markets this is a 80% – 90% of the call volume)

If the caller is on a text enabled device, we can clear them off the 9-1-1 line while offering them a more informative and interactive experience by simply pushing a web link to their device. Once the citizen clicks on the link, very simple HTML 5 technology can be embedded in the webpage that can extract their specific location, after they agree to share it, and then based on the response provide geo-targeted information that would be relevant to the caller.

This is a great transition into NG311 services, something that I’m getting asked about nearly every week. I’m convinced that the biggest success factor for a government 311 service, is the user awareness programs and publicity created by agencies. This could significantly reduce the number of  ”Information calls” into the 9‑1‑1 system, while providing a public resource, and an excellent EOC environment during disasters, as the basic premise of 9‑1‑1 call taking utilizes identical infrastructure on the backend.

I believe that this is one of the areas where Avaya brings technology to the table that a normal public safety vendor does not. They have the luxury of focusing on a very narrow use case of emergency services requests. But as communications evolve and become more multimedia in nature and omni- channel, the communications architecture embedded within public safety must involve with it or it wil lbe left behind, again. Those that want to play it safe by remaining stagnant, are actually depriving constituents of modern communications that could save lives.

To the current Sparta Chief of Police Neal Spidaletto, I remember you back in the early 80’s running around the house like a little terror, driving your Dad crazy. Congrats on your appointment as Chief, I am sure Joe is very proud of your career and accomplishments.
please tell ‘Baby Face Joe’ that Fuzzy says he still looks great and as distinguished as he always did. Always a great friend, and I cherish the many shifts we worked together.

Please remember to follow me on Twitter @Fletch 911, check
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