It’s time to re-think dispatch


In our multimedia, data-driven world, the interfaces used in emergency control rooms are becoming outdated. So much so that it’s time to find a new solution fit for the 21st century. So says Josh Pepper, Axon’s Vice President of Product Management, who leads the development of Axon’s solutions for operations and control centres.


Emphasising the need for a new approach to dispatch, Josh says: “I’ve banned the term CAD (Computer-Aided Dispatch) on my team. It stems from the 1960s and doesn’t make any sense anymore. It’s like saying ‘computer-aided Facebook’. There is no other Facebook, or dispatch. We need a whole new category.”

Indeed, dispatch seems decades behind in terms of technology. In daily life, communication via video, links, messages and photos is the norm, but control centres still largely rely on a ticketing system as well as radio. “It’s like sucking all of that information through a straw,” as Josh puts it. “Google Maps knows where you are, but 999 doesn’t in a lot of places. Being able to text the emergency services would just be the tip of the iceberg – we should be able to video call or FaceTime them as well, which would also give them much richer information.”

Alongside the need for a more information-rich, dexterous and modern interface to help control teams to make decisions, the public expects its agencies to be supported with the best systems available. However, as this review by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch concludes, to date, there’s been a far greater focus on emergency medical response systems. It goes on to call for the optimisation of operations systems for both police and firefighting teams. 



Anyone who’s been in a dispatch room will recognise just how important it is in helping officers on the ground respond to incidents – a fact that’s vividly underlined by a recent experiment conducted by the University of Colorado in 2019. It showed that receiving accurate information from the dispatcher can be a matter of life and death: 62% of participants fired a gun in error when primed with inaccurate information, compared to 6% when given the correct facts.  

The experiment introduces the theoretical concept of cognitive heuristics, which looks at how different factors influence decision making when under pressure. It highlights the importance of accurate information at dispatch as it shows that police officers (like everybody else) are likely to interpret new events (for example, a suspect pulling a phone from his pocket) in line with their previously constructed interpretation (in this case, the dispatcher telling the officer that a gun was likely to be present).

While dispatch hasn’t evolved in step with technology over the last two decades, our understanding of how the brain works has. With advances in neuroscience as well as psychology, we have a much better understanding of what influences our decision making. Ultimately, this can help us to devise systems that optimise our capabilities for critical thinking.

Likewise, we’re also beginning to understand the limits of our ‘cognitive load’ and how going beyond it lowers our decision-making ability and causes stress. This is relevant for dispatchers, who still largely rely on radio to assess situations which can be especially challenging when streams of messages are being sent back from multiple officers in the field. It’s a noisy medium and, in addition to trying to process other data, the pressure on operators can be extreme. In fact, stress is thought to be a strong contributor to the high staff turnover in dispatch centres. This is estimated to be between 30% and 50% a year, underlining the need to find more effective ways to help operators work.



Referring to the use of radio for dispatch, Josh says: “It’s like trying to coach a football team over the phone – it’s difficult! With our real-time operations platform we’re looking at how we can put everybody involved in the decision-making process in the field of play – albeit virtually. We’re using video streamed from CCTV, bodycams and dashcams to enable operators to see what’s happening in real time. And we’re augmenting this view with data signals that can tell the dispatcher if an officer is standing, running or wrestling or if a gun is unholstered or TASER armed.” 



It’s now 20 years since the first TETRA and APCO-25 radio systems provided nationwide voice coverage for Public Safety teams. Over the time, dispatch processes have been refined. And the advent of new technology, including mapping and resource systems, has helped improve incident response. But in many ways, control centres have not kept pace with the technology evolution, especially around taking advantage of video, sensors from data, social media and much more. For Josh and his team, the opportunity to rethink dispatch was therefore hugely exciting. 

The team has been fortunate in spending time over the last few years with many agencies and in hitting the road with officers to understand what they need from a dispatch system. They then integrated the research into their real-time operations platform, which harnesses signals from sensors in the field, enabling users to “know before it’s voiced”, to coordinate responses and communicate more effectively. 

Josh concludes: “I wanted to start this project with the end in mind, which is giving everybody involved in the response to an incident a clear picture of what is happening on the ground. Digital technology is incredibly powerful and this is a great opportunity to put it into the service of public safety. We’re confident that we can transform situational analysis in a way that supports decision making and optimises incident response without overloading operators with too much data to process.”

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