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Location Logistics: Where Are You and How Did You Get There?

Author: David Dowling

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-10-25
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Before you begin reading this story, ask yourself these simple questions and see if you can answer them quickly, with minimum hesitation.From where you are right now, which way is North, South, East, West? If you answered correctly, then you are one of the few on their way toward “Directional” independence. Congratulations!

Do you really know exactly where you are located at this very moment? If you do, can you tell me in a language that I can easily understand? Please don’t use the words “up” or “down” and for heaven’s sake don’t use the words “right” or “left.” Those words just don’t make sense to me when I am in a stressful situation or facing in a different direction than you. Maybe you could try using directions such as “North, South, East or West.” That just might work, assuming I knew what direction was what… but you know what the word “assume” means, don’t you?

In the recent and realistically portrayed Hollywood film End Of Watch, a female officer is heard over the department radio in a controlled hysterical tone advising “officer in distress.” Asked by the dispatcher what her location was, she replied “I don’t know.” Subsequent questioning by other officers available for backup became frustrating because of her lack of ability to accurately describe her location. In real life she might have said that she was “behind” a specific address or maybe even said that she was “east” of a specific address. A dispatcher or officer with good knowledge of the area would then have a much better idea as to where to respond quickly to render assistance.

Training for these high stress situations covers many areas and is not quickly taught in a classroom environment. In fact, true exposure to the “streets” can be the best training available. But that doesn’t mean that this training is not a life’s necessity; it most certainly is. In fact, in my opinion, all schoolchildren should be taught geographical directions at an early age, much like language skills are taught at early ages. Geographical awareness can be a lifesaver!

I had been a Communications Center Manager for over 40 years before retiring and my favorite question to ask new applicants went something like this: “From the location that you parked your car in here today for this interview, please tell me how to drive back to your residence. In your answer do not use the terms up, down, left or right.” The percentage of applicants who could correctly answer that question may surprise you - in my experience, no more than 30%. Many people just do not possess a working “geographical” inclination. Some do and given the choice, those are the people I would be looking to hire as emergency dispatchers.

Once this challenge is addressed, you can begin familiarization with other “rules” of the streets. For example, in the 20,105 square mile county I was responsible for there are 68 unincorporated communities and 24 incorporated cities. Eleven of these cities use their own system of house numbering. The remainder of the cities and communities, with a few exceptions, have adopted a countywide system of addressing. All of these communities and cities, with the exception of two, have agreed to assign all even numbered addresses to be on the north and west side of streets while the odd numbered addresses are assigned to be on the east and south side. While the local postal and parcel delivery personnel have mastered these systems due to constant exposure, repetition and training, many emergency service workers need constant updating and require extensive training in map reading and area familiarization to become proficient. With that in mind, one can only imagine the geographical confusion that is encountered when questioning a citizen living in one of these communities. The important thing to remember though… it is a citizen who will call 9-1-1 to report a fire or request paramedics for a medical emergency or to tell the police or Sheriff that the bank has just been robbed and the suspects are leaving the scene. Dispatchers ask questions like “Where is the fire from you?” or “Where is the person having the heart attack located?” Could you or your family members answer those questions accurately? Are the dispatchers trained sufficiently to recognize that the informant’s use of the word “behind” may really mean to the “east?”

Somehow when all is said and done, we seem to sufficiently communicate our needs, and assistance is provided. Hopefully this assistance will have arrived in a timely manner and at the correct location. Newly provided technical devices such as electronic mapping using Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), coupled with the most up to date Geographical Informational Systems (GIS) data, are providing much needed assistance to public safety responders. Remember though that all of this technology can’t and won’t ever replace the human being’s “sense of place” in the world. These are but tools in this process.

Remember the words by Graham Nash, written in the song, Teach Your Children, that say “Teach your children well, their father’s hell did slowly go by.” All parents, educators, and trainers: I challenge you to teach your children and/or students, at an early age, where North, South, East and West are located in relation to their personal environments. If this skill can be taught early, much like the skill of language is taught at a young age, just maybe a few more lives can be saved in the future.

David Dowling recently retired as the Communications Center Manager for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, after a 40 year career in emergency communications.  Dowling has written two previous articles for 9-1-1 Magazine: The Old/Grand Prix Fires/Déjà vu: We have been here before (April 2004 issue) and EMS Helicopters: Dispatchers Facing The Challenge (online here). Dowling is continuing his new career as a freelance writer and can be contacted via Facebook or by Email at wheels43 (at) roadrunner (dot) com

Related story: RIP David Dowling April 18 2014

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