The great Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.” Well, Yogi was right AND we bet he never had to worry about finding a semi-conscious person who dialed 9-1-1 from a cell phone a half mile off the main road. Nor did he ever have to direct an ambulance crew to a snake bite victim or help a police officer reach an emergency in progress on the other side of a swollen river. Nowadays, responders are better able to know where they’re going because of something called Geographic Information Systems, or simply GIS.
What is GIS?
GIS combines hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. It is the science of putting data into a graphical map format in what is referred to as layers of information. Layers include static information such as streets and fire hydrants, as well as dynamic information such as live weather feeds and chemical plume simulators. The layers can also include such details as satellite or aerial photography. The sky is the limit, essentially. What is important is that the elements are plotted accurately to the latitude, longitude, and elevation of the real world that the map is representing.
In the world of public safety technology, Geographic Information Systems can best be described as the hub of a three-spoke wheel, with those spokes being NG9-1-1, computer aided dispatch, and records management systems.
GIS and NG9-1-1
For a number of years, emergency dispatchers have been able to visualize the location of a wireless caller on a map with reasonable accuracy. This was based on latitude and longitude information transmitted by the phone and matched up or validated with the latitude and longitude of the map. The information would match or fall within a range of address points that was acceptable. Once this occurred, the emergency dispatcher would see the caller displayed as a dot on the screen, in a close representation to where they were standing in the real world.
As Next Generation 9-1-1 (or NG9-1-1) rolls out, we will see a need for much more accurate street level data. The incoming caller signals will now validate to a single address point rather than the previously acceptable address range. This will require many cities, counties, and states to address the quality and accuracy of their current GIS datasets. The benefit will be the ability to deliver emergency services with more pinpoint accuracy than ever before.
GIS and Computer Aided Dispatch
In most agencies, the GIS display, or “The Map,” as it is often referred, runs on a monitor next to the computer aided dispatch system. The map shares information with the CAD system in a couple of ways. First, the location information (e.g., 9-1-1 call) that is plotted on the map can be transmitted to the CAD system for determination of the appropriate response jurisdiction to be dispatched. This can happen at multiple levels of effectiveness depending on various scenarios, vendor integrations, interfaces, and data accuracy between the CAD databases and the GIS databases. Second, an agency whose units are equipped with Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) will be able to receive the real time location of the first responders using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and display the units as icons moving around on the map display. The GIS and the CAD will then work together to determine and recommend for dispatch the actual closest unit(s) to the emergency.
One of the primary benefits of AVL when coupled with closest unit response agreements is to greatly reduce average response times. Another benefit is increasing officer safety by anticipating intersection crashes and having closer backup units available. AVL also helps to avoid scenarios where an emergency unit passes another closer unit.
Many GIS systems provide routing information and take into consideration such things as one-way streets, road closures, speed limits, and traffic signals. The GIS/AVL system also provides management tools such as facility planning, geo-fencing, and crash investigations. GIS can also be a valuable tool for supplying helicopters with coordinates for either searches or landing zones and fire boats with off-shore incident locations.
GIS and Records Management Systems
Never was the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” more appropriate than when an agency couples the information of a Records Management System (RMS) with the graphical display of a GIS. Commonly referred to as pin maps, the third leg of our GIS triumvirate is the ability to search a database and display the incident-related data as either pins or shaded areas on a computer map. The display of this data would include the fundamentals of both place and time. It gives the agency the ability to run a data search that includes a period of time and a type of incident and display that on a map that can be printed, emailed, or embedded in a PowerPoint presentation for a community meeting. Incident data can be graphically displayed to assist in determining where the next fire station should be located to achieve the lowest possible response times or where ambulances should stand by for move-ups during busy periods.
GIS can be interfaced through a public portal on the Internet to provide transparency to citizens who want to see what crimes are occurring in their neighborhoods. GIS is a part of the system called Comp Stat, which is a crime mitigation philosophy developed in the early 1990s in New York City. It is a tool to capture criminal activities, display the activities, and make deployment decisions based on those displays and other related data. The system did begin with push pins and paper maps, but it was quickly computerized, which made it much easier to represent the concept of passing time.
We hope this article will highlight how an accurate and integrated GIS can enhance your computer aided dispatch and records management system.
If you are interested in learning more about Geographic Information Systems and/or computer aided dispatch, be sure to speak with a public safety consulting professional from Elert & Associates — where experience, knowledge, and innovation come together to provide the best services for public safety professionals.