A.I. Call Taker Will Begin Taking Over Police Nonemergency Phone Lines Next Week

Artificial intelligence is “kind of a scary word for us,” admits the dispatch director.

WELCOME TO THE FUTURE: Spectators watch the Starlight Parade from a Portland parking garage. (Chris Nesseth)

A new artificial intelligence system will begin answering Portland’s nonemergency phone lines next week, the city’s 911 director told city commissioners Thursday. The system is called “Case Service Reporting” and it’s provided by the company that manages the city’s computer-aided dispatch system, Versaterm.

“An automated attendant will answer the phone on nonemergency and based on the answers using artificial intelligence—and that’s kind of a scary word for us at times—will determine if that caller needs to speak to an actual call taker,” Bureau of Emergency Communications director Bob Cozzie told city commissioners yesterday.

The system will go online next week for “a couple hours a day to test and refine,” he added.

Related: Commissioner Mingus Mapps Wants a Robot Answering the Least Dire Calls to the Police

The new system has been in the works since at least 2021, as city leaders wrestled with slowing call response times. Then, only 41% of 911 calls were being picked up within 20 seconds. The national standard is 95%.

But implementation of the new system has been delayed. And the city has not solved the problem. Now, still 42% of 911 calls are picked up within 20 seconds.

“A problem was discovered during an extensive testing period, necessitating additional time for the vendor to reengineer the platform the site was built on. That, along with other projects BOEC was implementing, all contributed to the delay,” explains BOEC spokeswoman Jaymee Cuti. “Meanwhile, BOEC implemented two other technological solutions—Automated Secure Alarm Protocol (ASAP) technology and Automated Abandoned Callback—which have helped address long wait times.”

The new AI system was one of several new initiatives that were either announced or proposed at yesterday’s 90-minute city “work session” where commissioners grilled officials and consultants about potential ways to address the crisis.

One plan, outlined by the city’s community safety director, Mike Myers, is to transfer the city’s nonemergency lines to 311, which would operate as the centralized dispatch for the city’s more than 60 different “alternative response” providers, which include the Portland Fire & Rescue’s Portland Street Response and the Police Bureau’s public safety support specialists.

Consultants recently calculated that a third of Portland’s emergency calls could be routed to these alternative responders.

Doing so, however, would require retraining Portlanders to dial a new number—and renegotiating the city’s contracts with its firefighters, police officers and 911 dispatchers. It’ll be a tough sell. Sgt. Aaron Schmautz, head of the city’s police union, expressed concern about sending cops to only the worst emergencies.

“If you’re trying to build those relationships in crisis, you’re not going to be successful,” Schmautz says. “The thing that our community is missing the most right now is daily interaction with our first responders.”

Another rub: The city is potentially years away from staffing 311 around the clock. The service is currently limited to daytime hours Monday through Friday. Implementing Myers’ plan would require it be staffed 24/7, which he says may be years away.

Earlier this month, WW reported why: The program was allocated a half million dollars to fund overnight staff but never spent it, citing recruitment challenges and “the need to manage public expectations regarding a service that may be discontinued after one year.”

Related: Overnight Hotline Fails to Use One-Time Dollars

“Three-one-one would have to be fairly robust to pull this off,” Myers noted.

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