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Can AI and Other Tech Ease Public Safety Workforce Woes?

Police departments and emergency dispatch centers need more workers. Gov tech suppliers are rushing to the rescue, promising new software, data integration and other tools to make up for vacant positions.

A police officer talks to people about employment opportunities with the Prince William County, Va., police department at a job fair in Washington, D.C.
A police officer talks to people about employment opportunities with the Prince William County, Va., police department at a job fair in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Army
As police departments and emergency call centers struggle to hire and keep staff, suppliers of government technology are trying to help, developing tools that, in the view of companies, can ease those workforce burdens.

The ongoing staffing shortages stand as a main part of suppliers’ sales pitches in 2024. Seemingly every public safety product launch is described as making it easier for emergency response agencies to do more than less.

That may indeed be the case.

But while this trend is still in its early stages, two other storylines are emerging: First, the staffing shortages of today will guide product deployments years from now, given the pace of research and development. Second, technology can go only so far when it comes to helping agencies deal with vacant jobs.

Staffing shortages animate all types of discussions among tech suppliers and their existing and would-be clients, and are driving gov tech deals.

That includes the recent acquisition by Versaterm of Mindbase, whose health and wellness platform could help first responders avoid the burnout that can come with, say, the stress of working too many shifts.

For Motorola, helping to reduce stress means selling software that helps identify when 911 operators need to take short breaks — a threshold that could be reached after a few “stressful” calls in a row, Todd Piett, corporate vice president of command center technologies at Motorola Solutions, told Government Technology.

Tech also will offer more speed in hiring and onboarding, processes that can move slowly and provide further disincentives for bright, ambitious candidates. And having the newest tools can also appeal to younger police and call-handling candidates who were raised on digital and mobile platforms and expect to work with the latest technology.

“I think tech plays a role in each of those areas,” Piett said.

Public safety tech suppliers such as Motorola are working in an area that has to recover from the pandemic and the tensions and negative PR from racial strife that included the murder of George Floyd in 2020. And if that weren’t enough, relatively low public-sector salaries don’t help much with filling vacant police and call-handling positions.

Between 2020 and 2021, in fact, resignations in law enforcement jumped about 40 percent, according to the Police Executive Research Forum.

Newer data released in April is “encouraging,” the group said, with agencies hiring “more sworn officers in 2023 than in any of the previous four years.” Resignations and retirements have also declined. Even so, staffing levels remain 5 percent below 2020 for larger police agencies, which tend to have more staffing problems than smaller agencies.

Even as increased pay, signing bonuses and other incentives help police departments refill their ranks, emergency dispatch centers are having significant trouble attracting their own candidates. A report from NENA — the National Emergency Number Association — and dispatch software supplier Carbyne found that 82 percent of call centers reported they were understaffed, with a “growing shortfall” of younger workers on deck to replace retirees or those leaving jobs because of burnout.

One tech remedy to that problem is the ongoing push to link emergency dispatch centers so they can offer coordinated responses, along with real-time data and other services to make the job of the call handler less stressful and more automated and efficient.

An example of that recently came from CentralSquare Technologies and its announcement that five agencies in Oklahoma will soon be tied together via the company’s Next-Generation 911 software. The agencies together serve more than 100,000 people.

The tech just deployed in that state can “help automate certain processes and save time for call takers — specifically by responding to misdials with automated text messages and using pre-recorded greetings to sort and route calls with our Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) feature,” Kevin Wattenbarger, director of sales for 911 call handling at CentralSquare Technologies, told Government Technology via email.

So far, though, there has been scant evidence that shows which fresh technology works best in easing staffing shortages in emergency call centers, according to April Heinze, chief of 911 operations for NENA.

“AI has brought some alleviation,” she told Government Technology.

But it’s still too early to offer a solid judgement about the benefits of all the new technology, she said. Heinze and others from that organization say recent data points to some increases in call center hiring.

On the police side, it’s hard to nail down a single line of thought about the impact that new public safety technology and AI are having on workforce issues. Departments vary widely in size and budget, for instance, and in the pace of operations.

But a reasonably common view comes from the La Crosse, Wis., police department, where some 90 officers patrol a college town of more than 51,000 people. The department has 10 empty positions it would like to fill, Sgt. Brooke Pataska told Government Technology, and uses software for such tasks as helping to write reports more quickly, which in turn gets more officers on the street.

“Technology has really made things quicker, and turnaround is more swift,” she said.

That includes arrest procedures, a typically slow part of the daily job that software is helping to speed up.

But like others interviewed for this story, Pataska was skeptical that even the best technology or the smartest AI models can fully fix the problems that come with reduced workforces.

Heinze put it this way: “We can use AI to a certain degree, but I don’t ever see AI alleviating the need for human interaction.”

Artificial intelligence, as it stands now, lacks the deep levels of human empathy that non-robotic call handers and police officers ideally have.

Whether it’s even possible for AI to truly gain empathy is a major concern as the technology spreads — as in a recent example from RapidSOS, which just launched AI tools, including a large language model based on public safety training, for officers and dispatchers.

“AI cannot do all these jobs,” RapidSOS CEO Michael Martin told Government Technology. “It will never have the integrity or empathetic humanity of 911” call handlers.

That matters because the best call handlers and police have instincts that can prove invaluable during emergencies.

So what then, if technology can go only so far in easing the pain of staffing shortages?

One answer involves faith — specifically, the hope that young adults will find meaning in public safety careers even if the pay is relatively low.

“Gen Z is coming into the workforce and looking for purpose-driven employment,” Chris Nussman, NENA’s vice president of strategy, impact and communications, told Government Technology.

His group is also working to increase pay for those workers while promoting the use of wellness software to prevent job burnout — which, he said, usually kicks in around the third year of employment in those dispatch centers.

Another way to deal with staffing woes is to be smarter about how technology is deployed, according to Rob Wheeler, who handles growth, operations and customer advocacy for Peregrine, which sells data integration and wellness monitoring software to police departments.

“We think that when departments can show they’re investing in technologies to keep their patrol officers safer — because most new officers start on patrol — while also offering impactful mentorship opportunities, that goes a long way toward recruitment,” he told Government Technology via email.

No matter what happens over the next year or so — a general hiring boost, or massive leaps in AI capabilities, or more decreases in reported crimes — today’s staffing shortages will likely be reflected in the public safety tech of the near future.

“Ongoing staffing shortages are highly influential in our long-term R&D outlook,” Deborah Szajngarten, Carbyne’s vice president of marketing, told Government Technology via email. “As long as staffing remains a significant pain point for our customers, it will continue to be a focal point in our product road map.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.