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January 4, 2010

Ohio city gets updated 911 mapping system

By Suzanne Hoholik
The Columbus Dispatch

Navigating the World of Geographic Information Systems

By Skip Kirkwood, Chief, Emergency Medical Services Division, Wake County EMS

A geographic information system, or GIS, is any system that measures and analyzes data linked to a particular location. Such systems have proven quite useful in the public safety sector. Whether an agency uses it to slice, dice, and analyze response time data or employs it for in-vehicle navigation, most will agree that GIS helps to increase efficiency and the number of favorable patient outcomes.

While computerized mapping and navigation systems can be a great addition to any agency, it’s important to make sure you invest in a professional grade, public safety-specific system. This ensures that maps are up-to-date, and that you won't be sent down a nonexistent road. Although civilian-grade GPS navigation systems can provide some benefit to the average driver, they rarely provide the updated geographical information that responders need to do their jobs. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of families getting stranded in the wilderness because they relied solely on their GPS system's instructions.

It's also important to note that GPS navigation is not a cure-all. Make sure you test the equipment to see how it works before relying on it in an emergency. Remember that the agency has ultimate liability, so discourage your responders from bringing their own personal systems; you have no idea how reliable they are, and if something goes wrong, you'll be responsible. If you choose to purchase a public safety navigation system, make sure everyone is comfortable using it and that all responders are using the same one.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Columbus will be getting a new 911 system that will help police officers, firefighters and paramedics respond faster to emergencies by mapping routes to the exact location of the calls.

"We do have maps, but it's not very good," said Jack Reall, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 67. "By the time the map generates and pulls up on the screen, you're already there. It's slow and clunky."

The new system will have updated maps showing new buildings, waterlines and road construction. It also will let 911 dispatchers receive text and video messages, which they can't do now with the system that is 15 to 20 years old.

"It's going to allow the officers to have almost desktop speed in their police and fire apparatuses," said Officer Ramona Patts of the police business-support services unit. "It will improve response times because it will be able to map the route to the location where they're going to."

The $7.2 million system includes new hardware, software and training throughout the two safety divisions. It was bought from Intergraph, an Alabama company, and won't be fully operational until June 2011.

That's because Intergraph has to learn how Columbus safety forces operate, build a Columbus-specific mapping system and train almost 4,000 people, Patts said.

Training for police officers and firefighters is to start in the next few weeks.

The new dispatching system has delayed any discussion about whether the city should change the way it responds to medical emergencies. Columbus Safety Director Mitchell J. Brown said he first wants to see how the new system works.

Now, if someone calls 911 with a medical emergency, Columbus paramedics are sent whether the caller needs advanced life support or not.

A committee appointed by city leaders recommended last year that the city compare the costs and quality of advanced life support -- what paramedics provide -- and basic life support -- what firefighters provide.

Last year, 68 percent of emergency medical calls required only basic life support, not advanced.

Columbus used to have a tiered system in which some ambulances would provide basic life support and others provided advanced life support. Supporters of tiered systems say the paramedics are more proficient because they are always working on the most serious cases.

"That's not an area we're going to focus on," Brown said.

He said he doesn't agree that a tiered system would improve care or save money.

While the 911 system is being upgraded, dispatchers will be trained to ask specific questions when taking medical calls.

"We're going to try to make sure people know how to ask the right questions first on the front end before we look" at an advanced/basic system, Brown said.

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