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Chatbots: The next technology revolution in 911 dispatch centers

They’ll soon prove a valuable ally against staff shortages and call surges

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Change is slow in government, but there are steps agency leaders can take now to set the stage for incorporation of chatbots into future operations.

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This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it — creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

By Lieutenant Michele Mahan

Imagine a dispatch center that can answer every call on the first ring and communicate with anyone, regardless of their language. Imagine that happening during a call surge resulting from a large-scale emergency such as an active shooter. In the future this will be possible by connecting chatbot call-taking software with computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems.

These systems will enter new calls for service, update existing calls with new information, and route appropriate requests to telephonic crime-reporting or resource systems. Not only could such systems quickly update CAD data and make information available to field responders, but they may also improve the public’s customer experience by more quickly connecting them with the services they need. All of this could be accomplished while also making police response services accessible to a broader segment of our increasingly diverse communities.

Where we are now

Law enforcement personnel know tragedy can strike at any time, thrusting even the smallest jurisdiction — and their follow-up investigation — into the national spotlight. This might be a worst-case scenario that doesn’t happen frequently, but as incidents like these take place around the nation, they remind police professionals that we need to prepare for them to happen in our own jurisdictions. As the first point of contact during most emergencies, dispatch centers need to be just as well-staffed and prepared for these kinds of incidents as responders in the field.

The current reality for dispatch centers during unexpected major events is challenging. Whether it’s a drunk driver plowing through a parade route, an active shooter at a school or a shooting at a block party, the 911 call center is flooded with calls. Some are from people desperate for help, while others are good Samaritans trying to report an emergency, but there often aren’t enough dispatchers to answer them all. It’s a nightmare situation that can leave dispatch personnel scrambling to answer phones, hoping each call they miss isn’t from someone with critical information.

“When major incidents happen, the 911 lines get busy quickly, and depending on the incident, sometimes call surges can last for an extended period,” said Captain Adam Affrunti, who oversees the San Bernardino Police Department’s dispatch center in California. The San Bernardino Police Department is no stranger to this issue; a review of the 2015 terrorist attack at the city’s Inland Regional Center (IRC) noted, “Area communications centers became inundated with phone calls, many from on- and off-duty personnel asking if they were needed, family and friends of employees at the IRC, and the media.” [1] Most of these calls were received over administrative phone lines.

In the future, chatbots will be key to preparing for such events and ensuring that even short-staffed dispatch centers can answer every call they receive.

Staffing shortages in dispatch centers

Staffing models in dispatch centers are typically based on historical call volume patterns and planned events such special enforcement operations or other events that tend to draw crowds or law enforcement resources. These are two known factors that can be considered when creating a staffing schedule, but emergencies are hard to predict.

Elora Forshee, director of the Sedgwick County 911 Center in Kansas, summed up the problem in a 2023 interview: “We’re always looking ahead to what we can do to staff to that anticipated call volume. But then there are always going to be events that we don’t foresee or that we have no idea are coming.” [2] Even as dispatch managers work to build the best possible schedule with the staff they have, they may work in a center that struggles with chronic staffing shortages.

In 2023, the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch conducted a survey on dispatch center staffing issues across the United States. It found the vacancy rate for dispatch centers across the country was approximately 25% over the preceding four-year period. The majority of responding agencies (70.7%) reported using mandatory overtime to fill staffing gaps, while 16.3% of them resorted to reassigning field responders to supplement gaps. [3]

Historically, law enforcement agencies have simply hired to fill vacancies, but in recent years that hasn’t been possible. “It’s difficult to hire your way out of a staffing shortage when the agencies around you are having the same problem. We’re all competing for the same applicants,” said Affrunti.

Beyond finding an adequate number of trainable candidates to fill vacancies, there are other factors agencies in more populous areas must consider.

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Language barriers to effective dispatch communications

Staffing shortages and call surges from large-scale emergencies aren’t the only concerns for law enforcement dispatch centers. Many face the additional challenge of accommodating increasingly diverse populations, some with language differences that present barriers to effective communication. The current practice of using telephone translation services to overcome language barriers is slow and extends the time it takes to gather information and give direction. For some incidents, this loss of precious time may lead to negative outcomes.

For instance, an officer close to the scene of an assault might be dispatched when the call comes in and arrive before a dispatcher has finished the translation process to obtain and share information about weapons involved or a suspect’s description, leaving the officer at a disadvantage against a suspect they may not be able to immediately identify. For some people, the cumbersomeness of the translation process also acts as a deterrent to calling and can cause doubt that law enforcement can respond to their needs. As law enforcement agencies seek to connect with their communities, they cannot afford to let communication difficulties undermine their efforts.

Some agencies are already tackling this issue using software that allows for real-time voice-to-text translation. [4] While this is an improvement over traditional telephone translation services, the software still requires a human dispatcher’s participation in the conversation and draws time during call surges and critical incidents. In contrast, chatbots programmed to communicate in multiple languages without direction from a dispatcher will be capable of handling lower-priority calls such as duplicate notifications during call surges or nonemergency calls on administrative lines, freeing dispatch personnel to focus on the calls for which they’re more needed.

Transforming dispatch centers with chatbots

As staffing problems persist in 911 centers around the country, law enforcement and dispatch center leaders must find a way to make their remaining employees more effective. Dispatch personnel need to narrow their focus to those calls where they’re needed most so they can initiate effective responses, but as personnel shift their focus to those calls, the other calls that come in for nonemergency issues or duplicate notifications will continue. Those cannot be ignored, but the workload they create can be shifted to chatbots. Not only can chatbots answer those calls, but they don’t have the human limitation of answering only one call at a time. Even if this sounds impossible right now, businesses are showing us what the future will look like.

Businesses are succeeding at integrating chatbots into online and telephonic customer service operations, and their ongoing efforts are resulting in significant advances.

Bank of America’s chatbot, Erica, allows 24/7 access to banking information and customer assistance through either voice or text communications, serving over a million people per day. [5] Other companies have created applications that rely on chatbots to provide counseling or medical advice through both verbal and text communications. [6] Chatbots are branching into some unexpected areas, with medical advice applications being one of many examples.

This cycle of experimentation and improvement of chatbot systems by the private sector will encourage continued and rapid development of chatbots for a variety of purposes, paving the way for public acceptance of chatbot use in government services, and allow 911 call centers to adapt them to their own needs.

A business’s customer service call center is a totally different animal from the high-stakes operations of a 911 dispatch center, giving rise to the natural question of whether chatbots can truly be adapted to fit law enforcement needs. The answer is yes. Some software companies are currently marketing translation software along with call triage systems aimed at addressing duplicate calls during major incidents. [7] Once those capabilities are combined into chatbots trained for 911 operations, they can answer phones independently, making a significant difference in the workload for dispatch centers and ensuring the public has better and faster access to help when they need it.

Getting there from here

Change is slow in government, but there are steps agency leaders can take now to set the stage for incorporation of chatbots into future operations.

Start by doing away with your assumptions about what’s causing problems for dispatchers in your 911 center. Study your dispatch center to observe the workflow, look for the specific issues that create inefficiencies and ask your people what causes problems for them. Maybe the language translation process is slow or the administrative line rings off the hook while your dispatchers are handling 911 lines all day. Whatever the problems, you need to thoroughly understand them so you can identify the right chatbot solution to fix them.

Second, ensure your information technology (IT) staff understands chatbot software systems. If necessary, send IT personnel to specialized training or conferences so they learn how the technology works and what its limitations are and are prepared to incorporate that information into your dispatch center operations. Consider sending your IT personnel to learn from those running successful chatbot software systems in private industry as well.

Third, determine what additional load new software will add to your existing computer network and ensure your agency begins building network capacity to accommodate it. Finally, as artificial intelligence software developers create products for the law enforcement market, we can engage with them to help them develop and refine their products into something that is effective at meeting our needs.


The idea of chatbots used in 911 call centers is transitioning from a futuristic concept to a likely reality. Rather than resist that change, law enforcement leaders can steer the future of chatbots in their agencies through careful planning and interaction with software developers, making it more likely chatbots will improve 911 center operations. A future dispatch center where staffing shortages have a reduced impact on personnel, all calls are answered and all citizens have equal access to emergency services regardless of the language they speak is no longer wishful thinking. Someday soon, it will be in our grasp.

Questions to consider

  1. How will the integration of chatbot call-taking software with computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems enhance the capabilities of dispatch centers during high-volume emergency situations such as active shooter incidents?
  2. What are the primary challenges faced by dispatch centers during unexpected major events, and how have historical incidents, like the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, highlighted these issues?
  3. Considering the staffing shortages and high vacancy rates in dispatch centers, as reported in a 2023 survey, how can chatbots serve as a solution to mitigate these challenges?
  4. How do language barriers impact the efficiency of dispatch communications in serving increasingly diverse communities, and in what ways could chatbots improve this aspect of emergency response?
  5. What steps can law enforcement agency leaders take to prepare for the integration of chatbots into dispatch center operations, based on the suggestions provided in the text?


1. Braziel R, Straub F, Watson G, Hoops R. (2016.) Bringing calm to chaos: A National Policing Institute review of the San Bernardino terrorist attacks. National Policing Institute.

2. Tucker H. (May 2023.) 50% of Sedgwick Co. 911 calls answered by automated message. KWCH 12 News.

3. International Academies of Emergency Dispatch. (2023.) America’s 911 workforce is in crisis: Results of a nationwide 911 staffing survey.

4. Hernandez A. (October 2023.) AI bots are helping 911 dispatchers with their workload. Fast Company.

5. Bank of America. (October 2022.) Bank of America’s Erica tops 1 billion client interactions, now nearly 1.5 million per day.

6. Mesko B. (August 2023.) The top 10 health chatbots. The Medical Futurist.

7. Carbyne. (2024.) Carbyne applications.

About the author

Lieutenant Michele Mahan currently serves as executive officer for the San Bernardino, California Police Department. Her assignments include serving as the city of San Bernardino’s emergency manager along with managing special events, the Crime Analysis and Intelligence Unit, grant projects and the police vehicle fleet.