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BAPCO Annual Event

19 Feb 2024

Speaker Interview - Keri K Stephens, Professor in Organisational Communication & Technology, University of Texas

What’s been your experience of working with emergency services organisations up until now?

  • I have teamed with several emergency managers to better understand how we can use social media, generative artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and model data to help them be better prepared and respond when emergencies strike.
  • I also team with emergency managers to develop better ways to communicate about disasters that will resonate with their communities and stakeholders. My team collected data with emergency responders on wildfire preparedness.
  • I have received National Science Foundation funding, with an emergency manager as a CIVIC partner to be sure the research we do is grounded in the types of knowledge that emergency services organizations need.


What’s your sense of how first responders view AI and its potential?

First responders vary in their responses to AI, and some of them are really digging in and trying to figure out how to use it to improve their efforts. The field as a whole, can be fairly cautious, for good reason; they hold lives in their hands, and they want to be sure they can use technologies that will work when they need it the most.


How is the technology currently being used, and how is that use broken down across different public safety organisations?

There is a huge range of how AI and other technologies are being used. These are the primary categories I see.

  • There are also teams using robots for rescues and monitoring, but that is outside the scope of the work I do.
  • Using tools like ChatGPT and other generative AI tools to brainstorm, assist in writing grants and report, generate graphics for reports and outreach efforts, and a host of activities emerging almost daily.
  • Using drones and using AI to fill in missing data is happening in some organizations.
  • Having emergency responders team with AI systems so human expertise is leveraged to train AI systems and help them identify things that matter.
  • Mining social media data to better understand public sentiment and identify or confirm problem areas (AI and machine learning are working in the background and these efforts are still fairly labor intensive).


What reservations do first responders have about the technology?

They want to use technologies that have been proven to work when they need them. It is their job, so they are cautiously optimistic in many situations.


What’s your view on the role of the human being in decision making? Can you see a time when the ‘human element’ is removed altogether from certain operational areas/tasks?

  • I see humans and human expertise being essential for decision making around public safety. We call this process humans-in-the-loop, and many technologies are not able to make decisions around human safety to the level that human experts are. 
  • It is important for people to realize that in daily tasks, AI systems are working in the background already to assist with decision making, and many people are unaware that this is happening. For well-defined tasks and activities like performing an internet search, AI systems can sometimes work alone if they are pulling from the right types of data and are trained very carefully. But realize that many people are involved in keeping those systems updated and constantly evolving. Today, AI-type technologies are being found to make mistakes, cameras can be sensitive to light levels, and many of the sources of data used to train AI systems contain incomplete or biased data. Many people are working on these issues, and I’ve already seen improvement, but what is essential right now is to teach people that these systems make mistakes, and they cannot blindly follow the output.  Human decision- making processes are different from AI-decision making. 


What do you hope your audience in Coventry will take from the session?

While I will talk some about AI technologies in emergency communication, I will also share examples of other technologies being used like online apps and text message alerts. I’ll discuss how important it is that we understand our public and communicate in ways they can comprehend and in ways that build trust. I’m excited to share some research and practical take aways so everyone can leave the session more informed and more cautiously optimistic about our future. 


University of Texas

Find out more about Keri's session and view the full programme here

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