Prioritizing system measures stress in emergency services callers' voices


March 21, 2011

An experimental computer system analyzes the stress in emergency services callers' voices, to determine which ones require assistance the most urgently

An experimental computer system analyzes the stress in emergency services callers' voices, to determine which ones require assistance the most urgently

Chances are that if you're calling 9-1-1 (or 9-9-9, or whatever it is where you are), you're not likely to tell the operator that your case isn't all that urgent, and that it can wait. The problem is, sometimes emergency dispatch centers are so overloaded with callers – all of them stating that they need assistance right now – that some sort of system is required in order to determine who should get help first. Dutch researchers claim to have developed just such a system, which analyzes callers' voices to determine how stressed-out they are.

The team, from Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands Defence Academy and TNO Defence, Security and Safety, developed a computer algorithm to prioritize the calls. They "trained" it using four different techniques, incorporating recordings of actual calls in which the final outcome was known. The algorithm measures parameters such as the speed at which the caller is speaking, rises and falls in the pitch and tone of their voice, and their rate of breathing.

In tests utilizing a database of calls, the algorithmic system reportedly had error rates as low as 4.2 percent. The researchers believe that by refining the algorithm and using a larger training set, that number could be improved upon.

The system is expected to initially be used for military applications, but could eventually see civilian use.

The research was published in the current issue of International Journal of Intelligent Defence Support Systems.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Thanks for hyphenating 9-1-1 the correct way (as opposed to 911). I doubt this technology will work in the context of 9-1-1 - the stress a person is feeling in their given situation doesn\'t always equate to the proper response from emergency services. A couple of examples: A person recieving threatning phone calls may be under severe stress from it, but a response from emergency services wouldn\'t be high priority. A person with neighbors outside physically fighting may not have any stress at all in their voice because they\'re used to these neighbors fighting, but a fight will receive a high priority response from emergency services.

Kevin Bayer

Agree, the level of \"stress\" in a person\'s voice may or may not be a good indicator of the urgency of the situation. Trained personnel and those who do not recognize the objective level of urgency will need to be augmented by a second set of parameters including other calls about the same issue, Q&A and background noise.


\" the algorithmic system reportedly had error rates as low as 4.2 percent. \"

As low as, and how about how inaccurate it could be - 98.2%. Who knows because the basic question is not asked or is asked not provided.


Hmm...another anti-Dawinian move :)

Are they trying to reward people who panic over people who remain calm?

Sounds like someone was trying to get some government grant money.

Stan Sieler

That\'s a good point, Stan. And I think it is reasonable to believe that women on average will be stressed more in emergency situations.

Brandom Dudeguy

indeed a stupid method of prioritising 9-1-1 calls...

Vikram Vishwanath

And there\'d be software for mobile phones to add stress to the voice.


Ehm, what if the person is fx a trained soldier. Who\'s trained to handle combat stress? I think he/she can handle the stress even though the person is bleeding to death.. While a person who never tried anything might have broken a leg, and is totally hysteric? Then this system would kill the soldier while saving the person who could\'ve waited far longer with just a broken leg...

Christoffer Sperling

I was going to comment something about different people handling stress differently but it seems that has already been covered quite well. I will add onto Vikram\'s comment though about adding stres to your voice.

They mentioned in the article that everyone calling views their situation as very important, lets face it, they wouldn\'t have called 9-1-1 if they didn\'t. Now we all know that the most important situation is always the one that affects the person \"calling\" in this case. In this case we can see that another problem with this is the fact that they told people about it. If you were at the DMV (Dept of Motor Vehicles), and everyone knew that yelling about it would get you moved to the front of that 3 hour line then everyone in the place would be screaming. Likewise, if poeple callin 9-1-1 for their \"extremely urgent\" situation, every person would barely be able to speak they\'de be so stressed.

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