Learning Zone: Robots and Chatbots - how can they be used by our emergency services?

In part 4 of this learning series, we focus on two very different technologies - chatbots and robots. We’ll cover each one separately, first explaining what they are before going into case studies of how emergency services organisations are applying them today.

Chatbots for the emergency services

What is a Chatbot?

Derived from “chat robot”, chatbots allow for engaging, conversational experiences, through voice and text, that can be customised and used on mobile devices, web browsers, and on popular chat platforms such as Facebook Messenger, or collaboration tools such as Slack.

Demand management - reporting crime online.jpg

With the advent of deep learning technologies such as text-to-speech, automatic speech recognition, and natural language processing, chatbots that simulate human conversation and dialogue can now be found in call centre and customer service workflows and as personal assistants.

The odds are you have already engaged with a chatbot during a customer service interaction. In fact, with advances in natural language processing, it’s getting harder to distinguish a human from a computer. Gartner projects that more than 85 percent of customer interactions will be managed without a human by 2020. BI Intelligence reports that chatbots will contribute to cutting customer care costs by up to 29 percent.

But are we ready to forego human interaction for bots during an emergency?

Applying chatbots in emergency contact management

The most natural starting point for chatbots is to start call triage on calls that are still in the queue (on hold waiting to be answered). A simple deployment could be a chatbot that asks a caller if the call is an emergency and prompts them to leave a voicemail if it isn’t.

Chatbots with more sophistication could let callers identify the type of emergency and location, and either prioritise human handling of the call or route the call to a backup or secondary control room. Within a call, chatbots could also identify the need for a language-line translator to automatically engage the resources needed to help the call taker.

As additional methods of communication become supported by control rooms, the role of chatbots becomes even more evident. SMS, instant messaging and social media are - by their nature - different types of interactions than a voice call. That has several key implications:

  • Would call handlers be expected to deal with more simultaneous interactions?

  • Will there be long delays between interactions — even across staffing shifts or multiple agencies?

  • Could shorthand and ambiguous terms need to be clarified?

Chatbots can play a role in each of these situations, from escalating certain types of interactions to maintaining contextual threads across multiple humans, to automatically requesting clarification of terms.

A key factor that can’t be overlooked is that chatbots rely on data to determine the correct response, and unlike many commercial CRM systems, control rooms don’t always have a full data record for each caller. The more powerful chatbots are driven by sophisticated learning algorithms based on both historical trends and real-time contextual information. This is critical for intelligently navigating through scripted questions.

For example, a caller who is distressed and, in their panic, cannot be understood by the call taker, should be handled differently than a caller who has a speech impediment or is hard of hearing. A chatbot caught in an endless loop asking a caller with a speech impediment “I didn’t quite get that, can you please repeat?” is bad and potentially unsafe.


One simple solution is to connect chatbots with databases linked to the caller’s phone number, which could be stored on the organisation’s contact management system. An input to the chatbot’s decision-making criteria about the next response could be that the caller has self-identified as having a speech disability. interaction engines.

Our CRM solution Aspire is a clever tool that enables the emergency service to build care for callers by recording notes about their needs on their personal contact record.

Whilst the arrival of chatbots in emergency call handling has the potential to deliver cost savings and operational efficiencies, it will not come without significant growing pains. Inevitably, there will be a chatbot that will cause a response delay or worse.

There is also the human factor. Do we really want to lose the empathy of a human operator when we are in the midst of a tragedy? Technology has the capability of both reducing costs and speeding response, but the use cases must be carefully implemented to not impede the adaptability and emotional response that only humans can provide.

Robots and the Emergency Services

A significant number of research projects and trials are underway across the globe using different robotics technologies to aid emergency services personnel during disasters, search and rescue efforts, terrorist attacks and dealing with hazardous materials or environments.

Below we touch on just a few such projects and their potential applications for the emergency services.

Project Minerva

Project Minerva, co-funded by the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office, included robots that can ‘read’ and climb stairs and miniature drones weighing less than a bar of soap which could soon come into service to rapidly assess hazardous scenes.

The aim of the ground-breaking research is to reduce the risk to emergency services and front-line troops attending incidents or operations involving hazardous chemical or biological materials. The recent trials, which took place at Gloucestershire Fire Service College, saw concept drones and robots thrown into simulated contaminated scenarios in both UK homeland and battlefield environments. The technology was tested against the speed and accuracy of human response teams supported by specialist DSTL scientists, the military, police and fire services.


Researchers at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia tested a new version of the WALK-MAN humanoid robot for supporting emergency response teams in fires. The robot is able to locate the fire and walk toward it, and then activate an extinguisher. During the operation, it collects images and transmits them back to emergency teams, who can evaluate the situation and guide the robot remotely. The new WALK-MAN design has a lighter upper body and new hands in order to reduce construction cost and improve performance.

Growing Vine Robot

Created by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, this flexible, vine-like robot is capable of growing up to 236 feet in length by pumping itself full of air.

By doing this, it can snake through complex environments, lifting objects, and extending through gaps just 10 percent of its diameter. Because of its hose-like design, the robot could be used for moving materials from rescuers to whoever needed to be rescued.

One of the areas that researchers are most interested in is search and rescue. Robots could ‘grow’ through rubble and debris to help find trapped survivors. The robot could also deliver water or oxygen to survivors and possibly lift rubble off survivors.


SmokeBot is a robot designed to assist firefighters when they enter smoke-filled buildings. It has the ability to spot things firefighters may not — thanks to a combination of gas sensors, radar, a laser scanner, as well as a thermal camera.

It can relay this information in the form of maps of its surroundings for assisting fire services or search-and-rescue teams. While the robot has to be remote-controlled by a human user, by way of WiFi, it possesses the smart ability to autonomously return to the last position it had good internet reception if this connection is cut off.

There is no doubt that chatbot and robot technologies will have their place in supporting the emergency services and protecting the public, but we are still at the very early stages of how these technologies can be deployed practically, consistently and safely.


  • UK Government - Project Minerva

  • The WALK-MAN - IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

  • SmokeBot - Örebro University

  • Growing Vine - Stanford University

Find out more

If you'd like to find out more about how we can help your control room take advantage of the latest technology, let us know at hello@apdcomms.com or call us on 01482 808300.