Ten years ago, when Nate Becker first began working as a paramedic, he would spend hours with co-workers memorizing maps and street block numbers.
"Washington, Wayne, Berry, Main," he said, reciting the street order he and other Three Rivers Ambulance Authority paramedics have logged in their brains traveling north through downtown.
Despite that preparation, construction zones and road closures on some main arteries can often cause detours, delaying medical attention to injured people or the police pursuit of someone on the lam.
First responders must use their wits and act quickly when seeking out alternative routes and - if need be - move construction cones. Despite advances in technology, communication and old-fashioned training are still key in a profession where every second counts, officials say.
From water main breaks and train derailments to bumper-to-bumper traffic, emergency responders face myriad hurdles when responding to 911 calls.
This summer, construction on at least two major thoroughfares - Lima Road and Aboite Center Road - caused headaches for police and firefighters.
"If traffic is slowed, unfortunately it can hurt our response time," Fort Wayne Fire Chief Pete Kelly said. "That (Lima Road) has posed some challenges for us as well."
Construction on Lima Road, a main north-south thoroughfare, and Aboite Center Road, a main southwest thoroughfare, has been ongoing since early spring. While the Aboite Center Road project, which included lane expansion and sidewalk additions, is nearly complete, the Lima Road project will continue through fall 2011.
"Lima Road has caused some issues for our northwest officers," Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York said, adding many have gotten into a habit of taking Interstate 69 to respond to calls - bypassing much of the construction.
For the fire crew based at Station 15 on Northland Boulevard, in the heart of the Lima Road construction, it's been a summer of finding alternative routes and taking each call in stride, Capt. Karl Utterback said.
"When we are out, we will notice what streets are closed and will relay that to the next crew," Utterback said, adding that some crew members, including him, who live up north will provide the latest update on closures after arriving at work each day.
Fire engine drivers sometimes have to make U-turns on Lima Road when responding to calls.
On a few occasions, crews stopped to remove cones or barricades to get through a construction area and one time drove through gravel to get to a call for a gas leak, Utterback said.
"It kind of varies from day to day as far as the amount of traffic," he said. "Sometimes we have no problem going on Lima Road all the way to Dupont (Road). Rush hour, it gets worse."
Overall, construction workers have been helpful in directing traffic and making room for trucks to get through during emergency calls. If all else fails, the middle turn lane will be used to go north or south on Lima Road, Utterback said.
"People usually move or slide over," he said. "I've never been pinned in (by traffic)."
Utterback said firefighters have back routes they will take or will cut through subdivisions if needed, although that's not preferred when children could be out playing.
In addition to these case-by-case tactics, firefighters work daily with city dispatchers to stay current on the most recent closures, construction and water main breaks, Kelly said.
When hazards are in the way, firefighters alert others in the department - calling from fire truck to fire truck or station to station, he said.
Dispatchers routinely inform engine drivers of upcoming cross streets and name subdivisions from where 911 calls are coming.
The ambulance authority, which uses its own dispatching crew, and city dispatchers issue frequent notices to staff about road hazards. These announcements are made through e-mail, over radio frequency and through internal memos.
"Hands-on" training is also key, Kelly said.
"Firefighters often drive their territory so they know their best routes to take during construction," he said, describing this part of training as territory familiarization.
And when police are on routine patrol, if they notice road congestion, they will report it to dispatchers so that emergency vehicles heading to that area are aware.
Construction hazards in particular tend to affect routine calls more than priority calls, York said.
On a priority call, which include crimes in progress or calls where someone is believed to be in imminent danger, an officer will often go to a scene with lights and sirens flashing. York said he hasn't been told of any issues with residents disregarding police going to these calls.
The development of GPS, which uses space satellites to send location data to hand-held electronic devices, has changed how emergency responders do their work, easing the burden of finding the fastest alternative route.
Fort Wayne police and firefighters are both in the process of having GPS installed in their vehicles. The ambulance authority had similar devices installed in its ambulances about a year ago. The systems link to a countywide mapping system.
When the system is complete, expected during the next few weeks, it will include a specific construction map that will overlay the map drivers see on a monitor, said the ambulance authority's Becker, who also is a field supervisor.
He said the system will help first responders stay abreast of the latest closures.
In addition, GPS allows dispatchers to see in real time an emergency vehicle's location and whether a vehicle is experiencing a delay in responding to a call. The systems also have a quickest route feature that drivers can use, York said.
The information comes from the city street department, or in the case of state thoroughfares, the Indiana Department of Transportation.
"All those agencies are good about putting out notices of upcoming construction," Kelly said. "It's ongoing information sharing."
Other times, dispatchers themselves will input hazards such as road closures, said Jim Berger, an ambulance authority spokesman.
Maps Never Die
Ambulance drivers have been using GPS more and more during the past few months.
"It's been working really well," Berger said.
A paramedic at TRAA since 2001, Becker has seen the evolution of communication in his profession and changes in training. Announcements once made face-to-face can now be given electronically on screens in ambulances or in the employee break area by high- definition TV.
"Human error can make a bad mistake and could send us to the wrong place," Becker said, adding that the new technology often helps reduce those errors.
But technology too can fail, he said
The paper maps in the ambulances will not be removed anytime soon.