Could Citizen Self Service be Extended to 9-1-1?


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With declining revenue and increasing demands on service, could citizen self service / eGovernment be extended into the realm of 9-1-1 and emergency services in order to provide better service and drive improvements in operational efficiency? A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Todd Piett blogged about measuring what matters in the public safety answering point (PSAP) environment. This post will attempt to push the envelope in a slightly different direction by examining whether PSAPs could enhance their efficiency by offering more options for citizen self service.

The typical measures of 9-1-1 center operational performance are call answer time, call processing time, time to dispatch and compliance with call processing protocols. However, given the high frequency of low priority calls received, should a 9-1-1 center strive to achieve rapid answer time for every single call? Most Police, Fire, and EMS agencies have different response time standards based on the apparent severity of the call. Why is this not the case for PSAPs?

The easy answer is that unlike their field agency counterparts, PSAPs are unable to determine the severity of a 9-1-1 call until they actually answer and begin to process it. In fact, call processing is the very activity that permits the field agencies to alter their response. Therefore, current practice dictates that every call needs to be answered as though it’s a life-threatening emergency until proven otherwise. But what if a PSAP could reserve its limited resources (call takers) for higher priority calls by directing callers with lower acuity complaints to either a low priority queue or, better yet, instructing the individual requesting assistance to take an action other than dialing 9-1-1?

Citizen Self Service Background

About 15 years ago, larger cities began experimenting with 3-1-1 centers. There were two primary objectives: 1) provide the public with a single point of access to non-emergency city services; and, 2) reduce the call volume into 9-1-1 for non-emergency requests (or possibly in the reverse order). Although the initial investment in a 3-1-1 center is substantial, most of these cities did realize the benefits they had hoped to, particularly a decompression of the 9-1-1 center’s call volume. In conjunction with receiving its 100 millionth call in the first seven and a half years of service, the New York City 3-1-1 center revealed a glimpse into the treasure trove of data that these calls provided. It is impossible to know with any certainty how many of the complaints or inquiries received by 3-1-1 would have generated 9-1-1 calls in the absence of NYC311, but it is safe to say that a healthy number would have – particularly noise complaints, graffiti, the infamous “maple syrup” incidents, and many others.

Just as with the evolution and growing public awareness of 9-1-1, 3-1-1 centers became victims of their own convenience and success, driving their call volumes higher. However, rather than simply adding call receiving positions and customer service representatives, many 3-1-1 operations moved into the digital era by offering sophisticated options for citizen self service. Citizen self service is offered through a combination of interactive voice response (IVR), web-based services, requests through social media outlets like Twitter, and, increasingly, through sophisticated Smartphone apps such as Boston’s Citizens Connect that allow an individual to report a problem with a geotag, a photo or video, and then track the progress of its or even other citizen-reported problems’ resolution through the city’s work order system.

Today, governments large and small have begun to offer an increasing number of eGovernment services to the public with considerable success. Take, for example, the return on investment realized by the State of Utah over the past five years across 9 different citizen self services. For these services, the cost per transaction has been reduced from $17 to $4, netting a savings of $46 million. The success of citizen self service across all areas of government, including 3-1-1, begs the question of whether there are ways in which 9-1-1 centers can leverage similar tools to divert non-emergency calls. Let’s explore just a few of the possibilities.

Text-to-911

Todd has done a great job of describing the current and future landscape of text messaging to 9-1-1 in several previous blogs, so it isn’t necessary to rehash all of that detail here. Suffice it to say, however, that once Text-to-911 is ubiquitously available across all wireless carriers and implemented properly within the PSAP, it will very likely give the “call” taker the ability to manage multiple requests for service from different callers/texters simultaneously. This has the potential to offer PSAPs huge gains in operational efficiency.

Web-based Reporting Tools & Smartphone Applications

I firmly believe that, despite the number of ridiculous calls a 9-1-1 center receives, the majority of the public would prefer to not call 9-1-1 if there were another way to resolve their issue. A city or county needn’t have a 3-1-1 center to provide citizen self service options through a Smartphone application or web-based incident reporting / eGovernment solution. Numerous law enforcement agencies, such as Seattle PD allow an individual to report some low-level crimes online. A few examples are property theft (under a certain dollar amount), narcotics activity, and property destruction.

Several years ago, my car was broken into and some items were taken. I spent no less than 25 minutes scouring the city’s website for an online reporting form, or at least a non-emergency number to the police department. I was finally able to find the latter and when I called the number, I was told that I needed to hang up and dial 9-1-1. That doesn’t seem like the best use of limited 9-1-1 resources, since my call would enter the queue, late on a Saturday night, and likely get answered before someone calling with a true emergency. Had I been living in Seattle, Houston, Natick (MA), or any number of cities across the country, I could have reported the theft online and not burdened the 9-1-1 center and the responding officer. Although certainly not the only commercially-available solution on the market, a glimpse at online police reporting provider Coplogic’s client list shows just how many cities are already offering these services.

Social Media

Much in the same way that Text-to-911 will provide citizens with an alternate way of requesting service, so too could social media outlets, such as Twitter and Facebook. Many cities already allow citizens to report non-emergency complaints through social media. There are still issues to be addressed, but if the public could be educated in how to properly communicate with emergency services via social media (and for which circumstances it would be appropriate to do so), the efficiency of 9-1-1 operations would be further enhanced.

As technology continues to advance, budgets become more stressed, and the public’s expectations increase, citizen self service needs to be more fully explored for public safety. The explosion of Smartphone apps and even government-sponsored competitions of app development have allowed for much more affordable and rapidly-deployable solutions. Any amount of non-emergency call volume that can be shed from a 9-1-1 center adds to the efficiency of the operation, and, ultimately, allows for better response for those in greatest need of assistance.

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