Managing By Exception in the PSAP of the Future

October 1, 2013

Todd Piett

A few weeks back I wrote about how the telecommunicator role will evolve to be more like that of Air Traffic control.  I’ve subsequently spoken on this topic a couple times to what was, frankly, a luke warm reception.  Why?  Well, it could have been the fact some attendees took the opportunity to allow my monotone delivery to lull them into a restful slumber.  It could also have been the fact that I kicked off the presentation by saying “Your job is changing, accept the fact and deal with it, stop trying to fight it.”  The reality is that call taking and dispatching is changing for a number of reasons.  It’s no longer a question of whether you will receive text messages at a PSAP or whether you will be expected to pull data from other systems to help provide situational awareness to on scene responders, it’s a question of when.  SMS, Video, and all sorts of additional data are coming to a workstation near you – imminently.  The public demands it and the technology exists to deliver effectively. 

The real issue is how we actually improve emergency response with these new technologies?  Exception management was a hot topic years ago and provides a very relevant framework for how we look at incorporating new technologies into the emergency response process.  Wikipedia defines “exception management” as:

Exceptions are special cases that deviate from the normal behaviour in a business process and need to be cared for exceptionally, normally by human intervention. Their cause might include: process deviation, malformed data, infrastructure or connectivity issues, poor quality business rules, etc. Exception management is the practice of investigating, resolving and handling such occurrences by using skilled staff and software tools. Good exception management can contribute to efficiency of business processes. 


Let’s consider a few key terms from the definition:

1)      Normal behavior in a business process.  How many calls do you handle each day that can be considered “normal”?  How about that 10th call about the same accident on the highway?  What about the frequent flyer call looking for EMS to taxi them to the hospital?  How much value does a call taker really add in this process?  This is where technology can remove call load.  Based on the location, perhaps the fourth call from the same area of the highway can be greeted with an IVR stating “If you are calling about the accident near Exit 24 East bound, emergency services are in route, if you need immediate assistance please press one or stay on the line.”

2)      Exceptions… Need to be cared for exceptionally, normally by human intervention.  This is the key.  Humans need to intervene when automation can’t cost effectively solve the issue.  If you aren’t calling about the same accident on the highway and we can’t apply a rule to your call that makes sense, a human needs to answer the call (note that I’m using a very broad definition of a call, to include automated alarms, text messaging, etc)

3)      Exception management is the practice of investigating, resolving and handling such occurrences using skilled staff and software tools.  The combination of skilled staff and software tools is what makes exception management scalable.  The goal of any new technology should be to improve service – that means make the emergency response more efficient (right resources, right location, right time) and improve availability to all (hearing impaired, incapacitated, etc.).  Rules based software makes it possible to automate the handling of “normal” transactions and data is the fuel required of the rules.  When something falls out of normal, highly trained telecommunicators quickly evaluate the situation and jump in.

What might this look like in the future?  A good place to start is taking a hard look at our existing processes.  What “calls” are routine?  Or better yet, which calls are you really not adding value on?  This takes a really hard and honest assessment.  Do you really need to be involved in an alarm dispatch?  Probably not – law enforcement can be auto-dispatched based on availability and location.  Thinking a bit more outside the box, if someone is wearing a monitoring device and has a heart attack, is there any reason the 9-1-1 system couldn’t auto-dispatch the nearest ambulance?  As long as the necessary data exists (address of patient, reason for the alarm triggering, medical history, location and availability of EMS assets), what value does the call taker/dispatcher add by being in the middle of the “call” if it’s a device not a person on the other end?  Exception management kicks in when the ambulance doesn’t accept the dispatch with 10 seconds, or maybe if the speaker on the medical monitoring device recognizes the patient is trying to speak. 

As you evaluate technology, especially NG9-1-1 systems, I challenge you to think differently about the role of 9-1-1.  Our goal should be to improve the emergency response, and not just improve call taking time.  Think more broadly about where you and the well trained telecommunicators you work with can add the most value, and concentrate on how to free up resources to spend more time on those incidents.

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