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Relying on Technology for EMS in Canada – Pros and Cons

New Years is a time to reminisce about the past year and compile your thoughts. What better way to do so then to reflect on your 140-character opinions. One thought that continually pops into my mind is a tweet I sent out back in July:

I still cannot comprehend is the fact some  major Canadian cities still do not have address and location information readily available via GPS receivers for their front-line emergency response units. How can someone legitimize OC Transpo having GPS receivers to drive capital-city citizens around? And yet if your house is on fire, sorry, but sure hope that the emergency response drivers can determine your address on a paper map, because there is no geodatabase for them to use.

There are a variety of difficulties that are associated with addresses and locations. There can be multiple Main Street’s in one city, especially with amalgamated cities, and similar full addresses within a province. Deliveries to my parents address routinely requires advanced instruction to their house post-amalgamation, where couriers utilize the same street number, name and street type are throughout their city. Another issue is for streets that have multiple names.

You know when you use Google Earth and it says merge on to Chemin Valley/QC-105 S. If I wasn’t lost before now I sure am. Not only is there an issue with what street name am I looking for, but also how does a geodatabase handle multiple street names for a single entity? A second table is used for all other names used besides the linear shape geographic feature class for the street. But still, this adds in yet another roadblock (yes, pun intended) that a GIS user must take into consideration when naming streets within a database.

Aside from the multiple complications that addresses and locations make for GIS users, additional issues arise when life or death is on the line. One could argue that response time is one of the most crucial components to EMS service successes. Response time elements include recognition of an incident requiring 911 services, the phone call to request for EMS, acquiring the accurate location of the phone call and incident, and the time duration that EMS takes to travel from the station to the area of concern. Two of these components require geomatics.

Acquiring the accurate location of a phone call is not as simple as it may seem.  When a call is initiated from a landline, more accurate details are available compared to calls from a mobile device. CBC states that operators can have instant access to a name, address and phone number when an individual calls from a landline phone. “The increasing number of cellphones being used in favour of traditional landlines can compromise public safety, emergency dispatch operators say” (CBC, 2012). Out of all Canadian households, 13% reported using only a cellphone in 2010, and 50% of households in the 18-34 age range were only using cellphones. This means that half of this age bracket does not have a landline at their disposal. Lori Powers, the director of 911 dispatch centre in Windsor, Ontario explains that the accuracy of a cellphone location can vary three or four city blocks, sometimes thousands of metres dependent on the cell tower location (CBC, 2012).

There have been multiple instances where calls were rerouted very far from the initial place of contact. The Savannah Morning News published a story that affected emergency call routes. Approximately 100 911 calls were directed to Savannah, even though they were intended for Atlanta. An AT&T cell tower in Atlanta was coded with a Savannah address; therefore the calls were not being directed properly.  More than 70 calls were misrouted before police officials discovered the problem. This incident occurred in June 2011, but a similar situation happened in late October 2012 in Tucson, Arizona.

   Source: Google Maps, 2013.

A citizen in Tucson, Arizona called 911 via a cellphone to report a man who had fallen and cracked his head. He gave the address as East Broadway, and confusion began between the dispatcher and the witness. The dispatcher was hundreds of kilometres away in Deming, New Mexico, and finally at 1 minute and 24 seconds into the call, the witness stated a landmark near him – a mall. The cellphone company provider was performing maintenance on the towers nearby, which may have caused the rerouting.

Another element of EMS response time is the time duration that EMS takes to travel from the station to the emergency situation. This can require the most basic form of GIS – map reading. For cities that do not have GPS receivers installed on the response vehicles themselves, the drivers must be well aware of the city’s streets. They must remain up-to-date on one-way changes, on land parcel and address changes and new roundabouts and street light additions. For cities that do have GPS receivers at their fingertips (literally), it is essential that their databases are consistently updated and maintained, so that a reliance on the technology does not backfire. Additionally, speed limits and traffic conditions can be brought in to provide more detailed information.

Further positive aspects of advanced technology are how more and more drunk driving incidences are being reported, considering citizens have access to mobile devices. As with any form of technology, it will always be advancing. I believe that with anything new, it must be tested and reviewed meticulously, especially when lives are on the line.

7 comments on "Relying on Technology for EMS in Canada – Pros and Cons"

  1. Willbilly says:

    Your article is kinda scary. I thought the emergency people were more on the ball than that. There should be an app to report drunk drivers on your cell with GPS enabled.

    1. Deanna Sokoloski says:

      Unless you get ticketed for using a mobile device to report drunk drivers. That would be counterintuitive.

    2. Most places in Canada allow the use of 911 to call and report drunk driving, and chances are most people who call would be on a cell phone (most with GPS enabled).

  2. Melisa says:

    I’m not surprised, but an interesting and good article nonetheless. A lot of industries are slow to take up something like this, which is really unfortunate. The cell phone industry expanded too fast, and bureaucracy is too slow.

  3. Jonathan Bailey says:

    These stories are all too true, and there are probably thousands of more examples. In fact, there’s a whole conference, the URISA / NENA Address Conference, dedicated to examining these types of issues. Unfortunately, progress lags.

    Part of the lack of progress is due to a lack of a single, standard system for assigning addresses. This likely won’t change in the near future.

    Another factor is bad data: in some jurisdictions, up to 50% of address data contains errors of some kind. Five zero.

    How do you get better data? Well, first you need management to recognize the problem, the risks associated with doing nothing, and the benefits of getting better data. That takes an investment in educating decision-makers on the part of those of us who understand the problem. Next, you need the appropriate tools to identify and correct problems. Finally, you need processes in place to capture the correct data as close its source and possible, and QA procedures in place to ensure that the correct data gets into the system and stays there.

  4. Ryan says:

    Another barrier to the use of GPS in emergency response vehicles is the fact that the companies collecting this data (such as google earth & streetview) don’t allow their data to be used by emergency agencies due to the liability. If a fire truck or ambulance gets lost or in an accident as a result of following an incorrect road network on a GPS unit and it results in a negative patient outcome, can the creator of that data be held liable?

  5. This is one of the most interesting articles I have read about GPS. Not everyone would know the importance of it. Even I never saw it in the early recovery of this system. But then, I have been enlightened a lot and found this very useful.

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