Public Safety Virtual Assistants for FirstNet

February 22, 2016
Samples of the virtual voice-controlled assistants (VAs).
Samples of the virtual voice-controlled assistants (VAs).

This blog is a repost from The Police Chief, vol. LXXXIII, no. 2, February 2016.

By FirstNet CTO Devices Group

Virtual voice-controlled assistants (VAs) such as Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft Windows), and Google Now (Google), to name a few, have been around for some time, assisting people with questions such as, “What city has the area code 503?” or “Where can I find the nearest gas station?” or “What time does the concert end?” From these VAs, users get an answer that was scripted in advance by writers and programmers, saving the users time and, in some cases, resources.

The role of the VA is an evolution of voice-control features. While the initial use was for simple scenarios like dialing a hands-free call while driving, the technology soon became coupled with the same natural language speech recognition that allows a user to enter text in documents without a keyboard.

Public Safety Use

Many first responders within the public safety community already have smartphones that utilize commercial networks. This enables them to utilize commercial VA offerings today to perform useful queries just like any consumer would. But there are a number of public safety–specific characteristics that, if available, would shape a better user experience for first responders.

Some examples of these characteristics include

  • secure access to appropriate databases;
  • hands-free operation;
  • discipline-specific jargon or commands (very different than consumer voice models, smaller sample set, thereby more difficult to train);
  • security (important for “always on” services looking for gateway or wake words; concerns about overheard audio responses); and
  • interaction with public safety accessories (background noise at incidents; headsets while in fire trucks).

If these factors can be addressed, then the public safety uses for VAs can include specific incident and situational support queries using the same terminology that the first responders use in their daily land mobile radio (LMR) and dispatch dialogue.

Examples of such queries might include the following:

  • Who is the registered owner of tag number 123-XYZ and provide address information?
  • Where’s the nearest fire hydrant to 1234 Pelham Place in Oakland?
  • What’s the criminal history on John Doe from Kansas City?
  • What’s the appropriate nitroglycerin dose for a 250 lb., 55-year-old male?
  • What hospital is handling burn triage today?
  • Where’s the auxiliary gas tank on a 2013 Toyota Prius?

All of these examples can be useful within the context of a typical day for first responders by saving them the time it may take to contact dispatch or look up the information via a mobile browser. Users can also request a vocal response from the VA so the entire exchange can be hands free, which could be very useful for pursuit situations and other mobile operations. Many of these inquiries today are handled by dispatch, and modern technologies such as VA could support the work of Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs).

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce, was created to empower the United States’ first responders with a nationwide interoperable wireless network. This network will be established in all 50 states, the 5 U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia per the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (Act). The Act, FirstNet, and the ultimate establishment of a dedicated public safety network can be credited to first responders around the United States and their associations such as IACP, which helped make a key 9/11 Commission recommendation a reality. FirstNet’s CTO Devices Group is located at FirstNet’s Technical Headquarters in Boulder, Colorado.

Service and Network Design

FirstNet is moving forward with the concepts and groundwork to evolve VA technologies for use by future users of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). As outlined above, a key concern regarding commercial offerings is that they can’t access public safety’s secure databases.

Security is a high-priority consideration. The VA tool must provide adequate security for the sensitive information involved in public safety and some level of independent device control, while still providing an acceptable user experience when accessing the FirstNet service. The VA must also operate in real time to effectively serve first responders during incidents.

FirstNet will continue to work with the industry to further explore ways to resolve these issues with a balance of many factors, to include the location of speaker recognition algorithms, tailoring the algorithms to public safety users, ensuring they tie in with a variety of Internet sources and search engines, exploring connected and disconnected use cases, ensuring programmability and extensibility, and considering record retention issues.

In the true spirit of the Internet, public safety users will have access to the commercial application stores to try applications and pick the ones they like best. However, it’s worth noting that some agencies will use mobile device management security policies to restrict downloading consumer applications or restrict the available set, at their discretion. FirstNet won’t get involved in picking winners or favorites in such a wide field of consumer choice. Instead, it will ensure that first responders have access to the most secure and innovative VA tools to help with communications and situational awareness.

Get Involved

With the help of public safety users such as law enforcement officers, FirstNet will ensure the building, deployment, and operation of the NPSBN. FirstNet believes that public safety input and participation is critical to the success of the organization and to the planning and deployment of the network. Law enforcement personnel throughout the United States are seeing the value in public safety broadband and are encouraged to reach out to their FirstNet State Point of Contact, who can be found on ♦


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