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January 6, 2010

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.