Both acronyms (GIS and EMS) represent not just technologies, but fields of study and service that have very old roots even though each can trace their modern form to research starting in the 1960s. Both have witnessed explosive growth and application far beyond their original vision. But most importantly, these two names definitely belong together.
Those who have any knowledge of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) will often think first of maps at the mention of its name. Maps, however, are simply the form GIS professionals use to express the actual work done with a GIS. That work consists of maintaining a descriptive spatial database and using that database to perform analysis that answers real-world questions or solves domain specific problems. There are many examples of how it can be applied, but here we will discuss just those in support of Emergency Medical Services (EMS).
At the very simplest end of the spectrum is printed mapbook production. Because GIS “maps” are stored as data rather than graphics, they are easily edited and symbolized in different ways to meet different objectives. For use in ambulances, maps should be quick references primarily showing roads (with street names and block addresses) and landmarks essential for navigation. Street index creation is an automated function of the GIS that can make a printed book of maps more useful for crews attempting to find a specific street. Better still is an interactive map – one that can locate your current position using GPS and can automatically search an address (a process called “geocoding” or “geovalidation“) and recommend an efficient route between these two points. This function is manual in printed form but interactively can leverage historic “time-aware” travel impedances (the actual time it takes to travel a certain road segment in a specific direction given the current time of day based on your own past experience) and even access known road closures due to ongoing accidents or scheduled construction to provide realistic travel times and routes given current conditions. The database can also be used to locate not just the closest vehicle, but make unit recommendations based on additional criteria such as special equipment or training. When these interactive maps are used with ruggized touch-screen computers or new tablet devices, you have a powerful combination that can also support ePCR charting or other applications.
When a fleet of ambulances can provide positional and status information to the call center, the dispatchers have a better situational awareness of the functioning system in real time. Then by using additional GIS functionality to map previous incidents, a “hotspot” map (a map showing the areas of highest likeliness for generating a call) can be created to forecast future demand using simple predictive analytics. In the past, some organizations have poorly implemented a form of System Status Management (SSM) that failed to meet the objective of increasing efficiency and left many paramedics soured on the idea of post moves. Effective implementations (some highlighted in past blogs here) have shown that Jack Stout’s idea can be properly done in almost any system using modern technology. Moreover, by positioning ambulances closer to their next call, not only is response time reduced but the incentive to be hasty in that response is also reduced leading to less risk in travel.
Beyond these daily tactical applications of GIS, there are many potential strategic ones. Preventing a call is better than an emergency response at any speed. By looking beyond just the calls for service in the coming hour, we can begin to look further into the future and recognize specific risks of target lifestyle groups. Preventive care or community wellness programs can be directed at the most vulnerable populations to maximize the investment of such a program. Locating groups with increased potential for cardiac problems can aid in locating a blood pressure screening event as one example. Some agencies have turned to GIS to help them find new recruits or volunteers. I encourage you to communicate with your local GIS staff and let them know how they can help you. After all, assisting you to become more efficient helps them show value as well. You do not need to know the details behind the analytical tools, it is your existing knowledge of the community and its needs that will help your GIS staff address them. If you lack those resources locally, or have specific questions, please make a comment below and I will follow up with you directly.