Friendlier, more efficient PSAP

      Can 911 call analysis be used to analyze and investigate crimes, and to make the call process friendlier?

   Verint Systems thinks so.

   Its Impact 360 Speech Analytics Essentials for Audiolog software is more than a recording solution; it’s a way for detectives to parse leads, for crime analysts to add context to their data, and for supervisors to train and monitor calltakers.

   Research backs up the importance of 911 calls to criminal investigations. Last year, Tracy Harpster of the Moraine (Ohio) Police Department, together with Susan Adams and John Jarvis of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, published a study: “Analyzing 911 Calls for Indicators of Guilt or Innocence.” (Homicide Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1, 69-93, 2009) It analyzed 911 calls from 100 adjudicated homicide cases. The researchers found that certain keywords, combined with voice inflections, information given, and other factors could predict when callers were guilty or innocent of murder.

   Verint’s program may not be able to parse so many variables to that extent, but it can help. A technology that has helped private companies with their call centers’ efficiency and customer service, voice analytics is just starting to become part of public safety. Its capabilities are embodied in the modular Impact 360 for Public Safety.

   Beyond call recording

   Because citizens’ first contact with police is often via phone, 911 calltaking is just as important as officer-civilian interactions. This is why 911 call centers have implemented call recording for quite awhile. However, as Kristyn Emenecker, director of solutions marketing at Verint Systems points out, “The recordings sit there until a prosecutor asks for them.” Once that happens, she adds, it can take hours to get to a single call on a tape, or to listen to multiple incident-related calls.

   That’s just for investigative work. Administrative issues, such as caller frustration with the length of time on hold, require a complaint before supervisors can take action. A more proactive approach, regularly listening to call recordings in search of patterns, would be too labor-intensive and inefficient.

   These are the problems Impact 360 Speech Analytics Essentials promises to solve. It enables searches by date and time, call type, computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system ID number, and calltaker ID. “Then it’s possible to search on and isolate groups of calls using keywords,” says Emenecker. This cuts what could take days down to less than a few hours.

   Thus the system’s intelligence value is potentially farther-reaching than a single court case or complaint. Impact 360 for Public Safety can be used for crime analysis and investigation, emergency monitoring, quality assurance, and calltaker training.

   Porch fires in Pennsylvania

   Even though the Chester County (Pa.) Department of Emergency Services tested Impact 360 Speech Analytics Essentials for customer service reasons, at the time the software demo was running, an arson spree was leaving residential porches burned across the city of Coatesville.

   “We ran a keyword search to see whether there were calls we had not forwarded to detectives,” says Bobby Kagel, the department’s assistant director for quality. “We did find a few because in those cases, the fire department did not respond -- instead, a police officer took a report. The detectives were able to follow up with those additional callers, who provided leads that resulted in arrests.”

   Crime analysts, too, can benefit. The ability to search on street locations and keywords like “porch fire” can help supplement analysts’ crime mapping efforts. Kagel adds that the system can auto-notify with regard to specific incident types, so that trends can be identified more quickly.

   Crime analysis and emergencies, however, are two different animals when it comes to how fast communications must be monitored. Emenecker says these capabilities depend on agency needs as well as the call center’s size. “All audio is typically processed within 24 hours,” she explains. “[Recorded audio] may not always be appropriate for a breaking case, but can be used for incident reconstruction.”

   However, says Emenecker, calls are continuously processed. “It’s not one big batch at the end of a shift. Priorities can be set in a system, so some calls will be processed within the hour, while others may not be processed until the next day.” Currently priorities cannot be set in terms of keywords, but can be the line calls came in on (for instance, 911 as opposed to 311), or even the CAD ID number.

   Overall, the system is less subjective than the calltaker’s perception of what he or she is hearing and the relevance it has. It also means calltakers do not have to be responsible for sharing call information with the goal of uncovering patterns; instead, they can focus on calltaking, their primary responsibility.

   Simplify the call-taking process

   The successful resolution to the Coatesville serial arson case was only a small part of Chester County’s overall Impact 360 Speech Analytics Essentials test. The main outcome: a change in policy based on quantitative data from a qualitative problem.

   “When the county first went to 911, often the caller data that came up on the calltakers’ CAD screens was wrong,” says Kagel. Multiple municipalities had the same street names, for one thing, making it harder to figure out where someone was calling from. Then, around 1997 or 1998, a person died in a house fire after the fire department was sent to the wrong location.

   Whether the delay caused the death wasn’t determined, but the possibility was enough to change policy. Calltakers had to ask callers what Kagel calls “detailed, scripted, regimented questions” about their location, municipality, cross streets, and phone number. This frustrated everyone: the callers who were trying to report emergencies, and the calltakers who had to ask the same questions over and over again.

   Impact 360 Speech Analytics Essentials, set up to retain 911 calls over a six-month period, recorded and analyzed the calls, including speech patterns that indicated emotional stress. That led to a policy change. “Now, we have calltakers use the tools available to them,” says Kagel. “If the CAD screen shows only one location based on what the caller says, the calltaker proceeds with the call. If CAD shows more than one possible location, the calltaker asks which it is.”

   This kind of capability is important in similar situations, such as when 911 callers complain about getting a busy signal the first time they try to call. Impact 360 can ascertain when and how often this happens, so that supervisors and calltakers can adjust work flow.

   Policy changes are just one possible outcome of a call pattern analysis. Kagel says because the system identified 911 hangups as, again, a quantitative measure -- 15 to 20 percent of calls -- the department could conceivably use the data to construct a public education campaign. “Callers don’t know that although we can call landlines back to get a location, if we have to call a cell phone back and get voicemail, we have no way of knowing where to dispatch a unit,” says Kagel. “So we might tell cell-phone callers to stay on the line with the calltaker, even if the call is a mistake, so we can make sure they don’t need a responder.”

   Call analysis is not all Impact 360 can do. Via its “Content Producer” module, it enables administrators to use call data together with recorded console screens for personnel training. Supervisors can edit out callers’ private information and embed screen captures into, say, a PowerPoint presentation. Then they can sit down with new hires and go through a real-life scenario step by step, pausing where necessary -- for example, to ask what should come next.

   Impact 360’s eLearning module, meanwhile, improves performance via on-the-fly training. Not meant to replace in-service “block” training, it’s designed to correct deficiencies and point out strengths as they come up. Calltakers can login to the eLearning system from their desks and take the 5- to 10-minute session between calls. This real-world learning via actual calls, says Emenecker, can be more effective than a supervisor simply telling the calltaker what to do.

   Impact 360 rounds out its quality assurance methods via Scorecards -- an internal tool which allows administrators and shifts to compare key performance indicators -- and Citizen Surveys, an automated way to follow up with callers, via reverse 911 or e-mail, in the weeks following a 911 call. “It’s a proactive way to achieve two-way communication with the public,” says Emenecker, adding that public safety customers have expressed interest primarily because of high-profile botched 911 calls.

   Future developments

   Impact 360 records radio traffic in addition to phone calls, but because the audio quality is inferior, radio conversation is not included in analysis. “Speech recognition technology has come a long way,” says Emenecker. “And it’s pretty good now, but not 100-percent accurate.” As in a court transcription, some unintelligible or inaudible words and phrases are skipped, even in phone calls. Thus the software is more valuable for intelligence uses than for use in court. However, says Emenecker, ongoing testing means if recording accuracy can be improved, then radio may well be included. (Kagel says this capability would be especially valuable to training dispatchers.)

   This could also apply to “Text-a-Tip” programs. In the commercial world, text mining is routine business, with photo mining not far away. For public safety, because Impact 360’s screen capture capability records multimedia, picture messages cannot be mined like keywords — but will come up as part of the context for a calltaker’s conversations. Emenecker says research and development continues to follow that particular market.

   Kagel says the main reason the Department of Emergency Services opted to test the Impact 360 system is “our responsibility to make the system better, more user-friendly and efficient for both taxpayers and emergency responders.” Whether in terms of making the call process better for citizens, or the investigative process easier for detectives, voice analytics stands to be an important next trend in PSAP service.

   Christa Miller is a Greenville, SC-based writer specializing in law enforcement, public safety, and digital forensics issues. She can be reached via her blog,