Your Future Calls: GIS

Sandy Dyre

Sandy Dyre

Guest Writer

By Sandy Dyre, ENP

Courtesy of DATAMARK

GIS is dispatching

Anyone who is an advocate for education and knowledge for public safety 911 professionals knows that with the right instruction, information, and tools, the public safety 911 dispatcher can be the determinant between a “good call” and a “bad call” as the ability to understand the situation, coordinate the resources, and provide valuable information is necessary. To best prepare our dispatchers to support the 911 call and the first responder, they are provided the tools and knowledge needed to be successful.

Consider this: to support the 911 caller, a dispatcher is taught how to use their 911 Call Handling Equipment (CHE), how to understand the automatic location identification (ALI), and how to derive more information about the 911 call by using their emergency call processing protocols or by utilizing the information in the 911 mapping solution (the majority of 911 calls come from a wireless device). They are taught the proper questions to ask, why asking the questions is important, and the right instructions to provide to alleviate any further harm until emergency units arrive on scene.

Dispatchers are taught how to use a land mobile radio system, how to patch channels, how to tone out units, and where no-coverage zones are and what to do in these areas. They are taught how to use their Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) solution to enter the information needed to respond to an emergency, coordinate resources, obtain response recommendations, and decide what information needs to be entered into the system to support the entire “call for service” life cycle, whether that be to simply close out the incident or to track an offender as they enter the jail system.

Yet, when it comes to Geographic Information Systems (GIS), although used in many dispatch applications, no education, knowledge, or information on how to use GIS is provided. Yes, the dispatcher is taught how to use the mapping software provided with their 911 CHE, CAD, or AVL solutions. However, the lack of understanding on the functionality of GIS impacts their ability to fully use the tools they are asked to use to “dispatch.”

What is GIS?

If you were to ask most people, “What is GIS?”, their response is usually, “Well, it’s the map.” And, yes, it is a map, but GIS is far more than that. Geographic Information Systems are “a framework for gathering, managing, and analyzing data.” And for Enhanced 911 (E 911), Next Generation 911 (NG 911), and the public safety 911 dispatcher, the map is an information treasure trove of location intelligence. Using map layers derived from information created locally (local is better), such as roads, addresses, emergency services, communities, and any other map layer that is included in “the map,” location intelligence can be built around the 911 call or emergency response.

In today’s E 911, for every 911 call that has a location associated to it, GIS can display the 911 caller’s location, either based on the civic (or physical) address or the latitude and longitude received for the caller, and then, depending on what GIS map layers are being used, the map can provide information to the dispatcher such as:

  • Whether the dispatcher should transfer the call to another PSAP;
  • The recommended emergency responders for that location on the map;
  • Whether the call is coming from a house, business, or commercial area;
  • The city or subdivision the caller is in;
  • Whether the caller is in the middle of a forest, desert, waterway, flood zone, or on top of a mountain;
  • Whether the missing child from that location is in the proximity of sex offenders;
  • The closest evacuation center to guide the caller to safety: or
  • The nearest trailhead to help guide the lost hiker to safety.

For our CAD systems, it can validate the address provided by the caller, identify response zones, and recommend responding units based on the response zones and/or by closest unit routing. Our situational awareness applications can tie together the incident, keep track of who is on a perimeter, locate where new information is coming in from, and map all the responding unit locations based on their AVL. And for NG 911, GIS will validate the location of the 911 caller and route the call to the 911 center based on the location of the caller using GIS in the 911 network!

The way in which a dispatcher can assist is dependent on their understanding of the information that is available to them.

Does GIS require a college degree?

Coming from someone with a background in public safety, GIS is one of the easiest things to learn. One of the first benefits of GIS knowledge is how much more the dispatcher can support the emergency, the responders, and the citizens with the right amount of information about GIS. The dispatcher doesn’t need a law degree to know the difference between a burglary, robbery, and a theft. They aren’t required to be a doctor to provide lifesaving medical instructions to a gunshot victim. They don’t have a degree in psychology although they can help the suicidal caller from today being their last day. The dispatcher needs the right amount of information, how to use it, and when to apply it to do what they do best … dispatch.

Now that I know, what do I do about it?

It can be tough trying to sell the idea of GIS training to public safety administrations. Take it from someone who has tried to carry this message on the behalf of dispatchers. One conversation had a lasting effect when the response was “They don’t do GIS. They dispatch, and they do that well.” The official wasn’t connecting the dots between GIS and dispatching and apparently the conversation provided to them as to the value of GIS training didn’t either.

Sculpt the training message to be clear as to why GIS basics training is important to your role as a dispatch and/or 911 professional. Be prepared to articulate ideas such as:

  • Identify the applications within your communications center that use GIS or “the map.”
  • Learn how the various applications use GIS to make it “work.”
  • Share your understanding of how GIS will be used in the future as a part of Next Generation 911.
  • Express a desire to learn about GIS and why.
  • Ask your agency’s GIS person for help. (If not with qualifying the need for training, to come sit with you, learn what you do, and start a dialogue on what GIS can be made available to build your location treasure trove.)
  • Play with the map (you can’t break it) and learn what types of information are available to you currently. Learning how to use your map during an emergency is the wrong time to learn.
  • Contact a trusted adviser to learn about how you can receive information on a class on GIS Basics for the Public Safety Professional.

Register for "GIS for the Public Safety Professional" webinar, 11 a.m. (PDT), September 1, at

Sandy Dyre, ENP, serves as a Public Safety Subject Matter Expert (SME) for DATAMARK, the public safety team of Michael Baker International. Sandy’s role is to be a liaison to bridge the conversation between GIS and public safety professionals in support of E9-1-1 and NG9-1-1 goals. Sandy has been in public safety since 1990 when she started as a dispatcher for the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office (AZ).