I doubt that back in 1973 the Department of Defense had any idea that what they were creating would cause loads of headaches in public safety communications centers decades later. The creation-global positioning system (GPS). Now on its face, you might be thinking, “How in the world is GPS causing problems? Our smartphones tell us how to get places. Emergency vehicles have electronic maps showing them where to go when an incident occurs. There are apps in virtually every center that allow us to find things quickly including pinpointing where a caller is located when they dial 9-1-1. What’s the problem?” The problem that has cropped up is that many new telecommunications operators don’t know geography. They’ve been raised on GPS and don’t know anything different. Computers show them where to go. Agency managers and trainers are finding that they have a whole different generation of employees that need to learn how to do their job. This new life experience, a technology driven one, has to be addressed and training adjusted to meet this new need.
Recently a member asked in an APCO forum post if other agencies were seeing a trend in new employees being unfamiliar with geography other than through technology, such as GPS. The resounding answer was affirmative. In light of this, many agencies created a new training system that takes employees back old school with the hope that when a caller dials 9-1-1 on a mobile phone screaming they are in the middle of the Loolacks (my older Phoenix Dispatch friends will remember this one), they will be able to recognize the former name of a housing project and know it’s location. In the discussion of the importance of teaching geography to this new GPS generation, three themes emerged.
Like I mentioned with my Loolack description, trainers realize the importance of teaching new operators landmarks. One training put together by an agency in Georgia, has trainees look at pictures of intersections (sans street signs) and identify where it is based on the businesses and/or other items surrounding it. Another trainer mentioned showing pictures of a particular trailer park that was notorious for having a poor numbering system and quizzing trainees by asking them to identify things such as by the office or back by the common area. These are all skills that will only come through training. Landmarks are also major road arteries or community parks. Even if GPS is available for an operator to look at, the time it would take to locate something based on a caller’s landmark statement would be greatly reduced if they had a familiarization with their area.
Reading a Map
Let me be more specific. Reading a paper map. One of those things with all the squiggly lines and little triangles and other symbols also located in the legend. Yes, one of those. It’s hard to believe (for me because I am not young enough to have been raised without the ability to read a paper map) that some individuals cannot even distinguish between north, south, east and west when it comes to finding a location. And I’m not talking about the caller. Agencies have to realize that paper map reading is not something that is taught in school anymore. It’s often not taught by parents either. With the advent of technology, paper maps seem antiquated and unnecessary. After all, you probably have GPS capability in your car, or if not, at least a Garmin or a smartphone to get you where you need to go. But what if that technology is unavailable or is just plain wrong? In emergency services, the ability to read a paper map is imperative. During my time as a police telecommunications operator, I can think of numerous times where an officer would ask me how to get from Point A to Point B. This might have been because the main route was blocked. I remember one time, we had to pull out a paper map because the entrance to a location that was showing in the electronic system didn’t actually exist. The paper map showed that the street the officer had to enter in on was actually in the opposite direction and involved an entrance off an alley. One more story, since the ability to read paper maps is so near and dear to my heart.
Several years ago, the area around Duluth (MN) experienced major flooding. Roads caved in. Zoo animals washed away. A natural disaster was declared. It was during this storm that I was making my final move from the Upper Peninsula (MI) to Oregon, so my teenage son and I were traveling in a U-Haul, pulling a trailer with a 74 Volkswagen Bus that had a canoe strapped to the top (ironic, eh?). We made it through the downpour and flooding streets to the west side of Duluth and turned north because the Interstate was now closed. Several minutes later, we were informed by an emergency radio broadcast that the highway we were on was being closed also and evacuated several miles north of us because the river breached the bank. We turned around and headed back towards the Interstate. We pulled into a gas station now crowded with cars. The attendant informed us that the local hotel was filled to capacity and there were a lot of people who didn’t know where to go. He had been informed by a friend who heard from another one that lived a bit west (you have to love small town communication) that the sheriff’s department had one route through but that it would be closing down soon. Desperately, many people around me were plugging in parameters into their GPS systems and getting nothing. I whipped out my paper map and located the small group of roads that were being used to let people west. People flocked around me. I finally had to apologize, fold it up and head back out into the storm. I wanted to make it through before that road was closed as well. Long story short, I was very pleased with my paper map and it was a great lesson to my son, who is the GPS generation. I assure you he is an adult now but can read a paper map.
A final element to training that every agency discussing this dilemma said was invaluable is the ability for new operators to do ride alongs. But more than just the let’s hang out and see what an officer, firefighter, paramedic does during their shift, but the ability to actually drive around the area and see the landmarks and intersections and businesses. Many agencies encourage them to take pictures and reference them later. Above and beyond the ride along, which some agencies can only afford for a short period of time, or for agencies like my former one that was so large riding with a beat officer only showed a small portion of the city, new operators need to be encouraged to continue their explorations and learning outside of work time. Testing them on their familiarity is also encouraged.
Although there are many things that crop up when training the next generation of public safety telecommunications operators, the issues revolving around a group of individuals who were raised during a time of incredible technology do not have to be a problem if they are understood and mitigated during training. Encourage familiarity, traveling the jurisdiction and even fun scavenger hunts. Make the training fun and not musty. Being able to understand locations and also to locate areas around a jurisdiction are vital and the GPS generation can be taught how to use their technology as well as the old ways.