Wednesday, July 9, 2014

where am I now? Map basics for dispatchers

Odd, even, north or south – how do I get there? Map reading basics for dispatchers.

One of the most basic tasks and yet awkward to teach is geography. How does one help a new dispatcher learn the jurisdiction of an agency’s response zones, especially a large area? Having an understanding of how the department’s assigned area is laid out will help in the taking of calls for service, coordinating of radio traffic, and handling of in-progress incidents.

First, one must know how what reference books are available for his or her communications center. For example, in a previous agency, I had a standard Thomas Guide (street map), City Water Dept. map, and a map of the city with the police beats & state census tracts marked out. Each radio station had the same City map, but the fire side had the response districts while the police one had the beats. At my current one, I have multiple maps of the state (we’re a State-wide dispatch), a topographical atlas showing detailed locations of water guzzlers, multiple water maps of specific areas, maps of state & regional parks, hunt zone maps, and endless on-line reference resources. At one point, I’ve used each of them.

Learning how a city or county is set up may not be easy from just looking at a map book. One needs to get outside. This is where ride-alongs come in. Nothing beats seeing visual references. Take photographs and make notes during your time in the field. Instruct the trainee to drive a different route to work each day, take a new off ramp or use a new street on the way home (keeping safety in mind, of course). I made a point of going to some of the closer parks we patrol on my days off (I took my dog with me and made it an outing).

Break up major streets by 500 or one thousand numbers. Are there themed streets (animals, famous persons)? What are common places (parks, marinas, schools, recreation attractions, etc.), trouble areas, famous landmarks, bridges, or tunnels that may come up regularly? What side of the street is north, south, east, or west? How common place can be used as a reference to describe each direction (east is ‘the hills’ while west is ‘the bay’). Figure out the same for even verses odd numbers. This will help when speaking with callers unfamiliar with the area or even field personnel (yes, they get lost, too).

A standard map guide for cities will show a portion of a city or county. You can look up a street name, park, school, or other reference in the index. The pages are set up in a grid-format. The Thomas Guide (one of the more common maps) will give you a map, along with a letter and number (i.e. 54B5) in the index. That is the map page and grid reference. You then go to page 54 and look up grid B-5 for the street name in question. Other maps use a similar format. If you are looking for details on city or county streets, this is the map to grab.

A topographical map shows elevations and geographical features. This is helpful to folks who like to hike, camp, or utilize the outdoors as part of their daily activities. Topo maps may not have details on streets, but they do show major cities and highways.  These maps are great sources for lakes, rivers, mountain ranges, deserts, state & national parks, and hunting units.

If you are looking for information on an individual place, you may have such a source within your agency. If not, why not try that places’ website? As a State agency, our patrol area is huge, so we can’t possibly have detailed maps in dispatch for every spot we cover. We utilize many on-line sites to get local maps, such as the Nevada State Parks to see maps & photographs of individual parks. Another reference I use is a website that allows me to search out names of geographical places (mines, lakes, mountain ranges). I set up a folder ahead of time with searches for various topo features so all I have to do is type in a name, or partial name, when I’m looking for a particular feature. One can do the same with GPS coordinates, providing you enter the correct format.

Below are some links to common geography help sites. Good luck!

stay safe out there! for searching out multiple features in a designated state

Nevada State Parks (as an example of state resources)

unique street name look-up

ZIP Code look-up

driving directions

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