Recently I read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about the difficulties of recruiting telephone operators for 911 calls. With the U.S. unemployment rate at less than 4% at first I did not understand why it’s difficult to fill a job that pays something close to $20/hour. Until you begin to dig deeper.
911 operators have to be as good in hour 8 of their shift as in hour 1. Is that even possible? As a believer in technology solutions I began to wonder if artificial intelligence bots would do a better overall job of handling 911 callers? On the positive side bots don’t get tired. And they learn iteratively. But the lack of humanity involved in using bots in what is a very human situation is a huge red flag.
If you’ve never thought about it, there are no alternative 911 services. No private UBER-like 911 companies to help callers. At least not quite yet. Getting taken to the emergency room (which almost universally happens when calling 911 for a medical reason) is the default option. Yet with insurance coverage today, there are increasing amounts of people who decidedly do NOT want to go to the Emergency Room because of the cost, which can be hundreds of dollars if not thousands.
I’ve had the good fortune to have never called 911. And if I did I’d expect some sense of compassion and willingness to help on the receiving end. I would not care about the phone call the operator took right before mine, or the one right after my phone call. Call me selfish that way.
911 operators have an incredibly difficult job. The article suggested that the average telephone operator makes about $18/hour. Think about the fact that 911 operators are only be paid a bit more than 10% over the operator taking calls for a retail company. 911 operators handle life and death situations on a daily basis. Oddly enough the qualifications are to have a high school diploma and to have good typing skills. That’s a pretty low bar for a very important job.
911 operators have the same kind of day every day. Being a 911 operator for any length of time can’t be easy either. Every call is literally an emergency. The pressure has to be incredible since there are no calls to say thank you or good job. Think about doing that for 8 straight hours every day. There has to be a cumulative negative effect of being a 911 operator. Are there many good days at work? Any?
It seems to me that 911 operators should be paid double or more what a normal telephone operator receives. Since I am a realist I have zero expectation that any municipality will consider paying 911 operators $40/hour. But what about an AI bot-system that can answer all the calls, determine which ones need to be stepped up to a human, and which ones can be handled by the bot in terms of taking down the information and responding as to what happens next? Is that unfathomable?
I know it probably sounds a little crazy but leaving things the way they are is even crazier in many ways. AI has come a long way and there is still a way to go. But what is becoming a larger problem has to be dealt with in short order and new approaches should be vetted.