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Guiding the Way When Seconds Count

HAWKINS COUNTY, Tenn. -- Navigating backcountry roads in places such as Hawkins County, Tenn., can be a challenge for ambulance drivers, even if they do know the territory.

That's why, since March 31, Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, purchased locally for $200 each, have been in use in the county's five ambulances, says Chris Christian of the Hawkins County Emergency Medical Service (EMS).

The rural squad is one of a growing number of first-responder organizations, small and large across the USA, equipping vehicles with satellite navigating and vehicle-tracking technology, says Ed Plaugher, director of national programs for the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

While no national statistics are available on how many first responders use satellite navigating devices, their use of automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems -- which build on GPS technology to transmit a rescue vehicle's location to a command post -- has increased more than 20% per year since 2000, says Clem Driscoll, president of C.J. Driscoll and Associates, a marketing consulting firm in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.

Nationwide, about one-fourth of ambulances, 15% of fire vehicles and 10% of police cars are equipped with AVL systems, he says.

"It's no longer just about finding the address," Plaugher says. "It's also about finding the closest vehicle."

High price tags and slow political processes have caused some larger city departments to lag in adopting the technology, says Theodore Collins, president and chief executive officer of InterAct Public Safety Systems, a North Carolina company that provides AVL and dispatch software.

Last month in Washington, D.C., rescue workers responding to a 911 call about a seizure confused an address on G Street with one on G Place, says Demetrios Vlassopoulos, battalion fire chief of communications. The victim, Jeremy Miller, 35, later died.

In total, 34 minutes and 15 seconds elapsed from the first 911 call to when the patient was delivered to a hospital less than 2 miles away, he says.

It is unclear whether the delay contributed to Miller's death, as autopsy results are pending, says Beverly Fields, a spokeswoman for the District of Columbia medical examiner's office. Nevertheless, Vlassopoulos says the city has begun adding 120 Garmin GPS devices to its fleet.

The $30,000 cost is a "stop-gap" until the department upgrades each of its vehicles with a hard-shelled computer capable of displaying navigation coordinates, Vlassopoulos says. The process is expected to take up to two years, he says.

Elsewhere:

*In Los Angeles, the fire department is conducting a pilot program to add AVL systems to each vehicle, says Dennis Bloemhof, director of systems. The challenge will be getting money to fully fund it, he says.

"To me, it's a no-brainer: AVL is very valuable," Bloemhof says. "It's been used by the trucking industry for years."

*In Phoenix, the fire department uses a cutting-edge system that automatically selects the closest unit among more than 600 vehicles in the field from 21 municipalities in a 2,000-square-mile area, says Leif Anderson, deputy chief of technical services.

"Clearly, we're in a business where seconds count," Anderson says. "If you're using GPS or automatic vehicle locator, it's a tremendous life savings you can't put a value on."

Fire technician systems integrator Ron Burch says AVL systems are crucial in growing metropolitan areas, where new fire stations can complicate a dispatcher's job. In Phoenix, a dispatcher simply sends the closest vehicle -- automatically selected based on GPS -- instead of making decisions on new building locations, he notes.

*In Chicago, first responders use a system that costs $2,800 per vehicle with AVL, says Jim Argiropoulos, acting executive director of the office of emergency management and communications. It costs $3 million annually to run the system, he says, adding the price is worth it.

*In New York, when AVL systems launched in April 2006, the response times for fire and EMS dropped an average of 33 seconds during a seven-month pilot program -- a lifetime for a person in cardiac arrest, says Seth Andrews, fire department spokesman.

Ted Gartner, spokesman for Garmin International, says the company can't specify how many of the 12 million units shipped last year went to first responders, because many purchased them from retail stores.

More EMS departments in rural areas will add GPS technology as new development adds homes and streets complicating emergency routes, says Jim Buell, director of special projects with the American Ambulance Association.

For each emergency, Buell says, technology underscores the most basic rule in first response.

"Where seconds matter, faster is just better."

Latshaw reports for The Daily Times in Salisbury, Md.

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