GPS in the Ambulance – An overreliance on Ms. Kitty

Actual conversation between me and my partner a few years ago right after receiving an emergency call:

Me:        “Lemme get this on the map… I think it’s South of us. Head South… Southeast! Yeah, it’s Southeast of us”

Her:       “Whattaya mean Southeast!? I don’t know directions. You’ll have to tell me Left or Right!”

Me:        < Scanning the map> “Um… Ok, we’re heading North, so make a Right up here on River Drive and head to Mulford. The street is right off of State and Mulford, one West and two South”

Her:       “It’s what?”

Me:        “Just head to State and Mulford and I’ll get ya in

Remember that? Remember those days when we used to use paper maps? I do. Man, those days were crazy… back when we had to use those archaic things, right?

Actual conversation between me and a different partner in the much more recent past while driving to an emergency call:

Me:        “Dang it! The GPS won’t get satellite signal! I can’t lock in the address”

Him:       “Where do I turn? What street is it off of?”

Me:        “Hang on, I’ll try to look up the address from my phone… Gah! Why is the connection so slow!?”

Him:       “I’m going to turn down this street… what was the address again??”

Me:        “Um… I think it was… 432 Mulberry… I think… Don’t we have a paper map in this truck???”

Him:       “I didn’t see one. Maybe I can get the address on my phone.”

Me:        “Wait, is that a cop up ahead? I think he’s at the call, drive up there.”

Cop:       “Hey! What took you guys so long!?”

Ain’t modern technology great?

It was only a few years ago that we got GPS machines in the ambulances I ran in. Previous to that we had survived off of our “Stacy Maps” which were these awesome map books designed by a local company. They weren’t sexy or technologically sufficient for the times… but they always got the job done if you knew how to use them. Sure, they were hard to read by yourself if you were the only one navigating the truck, but they worked… every time. No outside force could stop them from working. If you had one, you weren’t lost, period.

Now, with our increasing reliance on the magic voice in the GPS box (I call my GPS voice Ms. Kitty) we seem to be able to get to our calls seamlessly and smoothly… 90% of the time. There are times when the GPS doesn’t work, times when it’s just too darn slow, and times when it doesn’t have an address to lock in to. The GPS just isn’t always optimized for emergency response. I’ve found that my GPS is great when I am dispatched to 9933 Harrison St as a physical address… but not so much when I’m dispatched to “The bike path in the field behind Costco off of the side road next to the blue house”.

I remember a call I got once when I was working a relief shift at a contracted rural station. We had just cleared a call from a downtown hospital when the service got a call for a nasty auto wreck out in the country. Their dispatch asked us to respond as the third ambulance. I usually worked in the city the hospital was in so I knew how bad the regular routes were clogged with construction, being as it was summer in the Midwest. I drove and was able to use my knowledge of the city to get us around every bit of it. I took State St to Prospect, Prospect to Guilford, Guilford to Highcrest, Highcrest to Springcreek, Springcreek to Springbrook, Springbrook to Perryville, to… well, you get the idea. I was able to bob and weave through that city so much that we arrived at the scene in record time… which was just in time to be cancelled and sent back to quarters.

What I’m saying is that I knew the city so well because I had been forced to learn how to navigate it by reading paper maps. A skill that sadly, I’m afraid we’re losing as we increase our reliance on the magic directional box and the voices inside of it. GPS is a great tool, but since a huge part of our effectiveness as EMS people is actually being able to arrive at an address in a timely manner, it can’t be our only tool to find one. If you're relying on your GPS as the only tool you have to find the address of an emergency call, you're turning your GPS machine into a life-safety device. I'm sure the manufacturer will agree that It was never intended to be one of those.

My advice is to learn to love your paper maps. Read them. Study them as much as you study your medical protocols. Drive around your wider response area without turning on your GPS. Get lost in it every now and then and try to find your way around. Be sure to pay attention to the hundred blocks, the street names, and the short cuts. Don’t become clueless when Ms. Kitty takes a coffee break.


For more of my “You Kids Get Off My Lawn!!” ramblings, you may want to check out “Those Darn Kids!”

  • I train new members that there is no reason to get lost when you have an ADC map, GPS and dispatch. We make them train using the first two, and explain how dispatch can help us on the third. Then I randomly make them look stuff up on the ADC maps. Back in the day we had to turn at the red silo with the cows in the field!

    • Ckemtp

      That’s exactly where I started. We had a 275sq mile territory of about 7000 people. Way more cows than humans. Of course, back then we just asked for the last name of the address because we knew where everyone lived.

  • We have a guy at work that can’t turn around to go back somewhere that is still in his rear view mirror.  He has to stop and plug EVERYTHING into GPS.  I never use the GPS, hate the damn things because everyone fiddles with them and they always take the most obscure route.  I do 98% of my work in the city of Chicago, I have a hundreds guide that gets me everywhere.  If I have to venture out to a burb that’s unfamiliar then I’ll bust out the mapping feature on my phone but that’s rare.  I can find my way from where I live near cheese land to the hoosier state and points further west of Chicago all without a map.  

    • Ckemtp

      I’ve used those very same Chicago map books many a time. Back when I worked out of Aurora I studied them religiously. Though… I’ll admit I use GPS to get around the burbs these days. There’s just too many of them.

  • We had Thomas Brothers map books down in Southern California that had an almost Google Maps level of detail (any street, streams, every on ramp, even some points of interest such as hospitals and fire stations were listed), and I’d take a good map book like that over GPS any day of the week. There’s value in being able to quickly and easily find alternative routes.

  • Same here in Ye Olde Englande! 
    I’ve been in EMS less than a decade (just), and when I started, GPS was non-existent. Real maps, in real books, with real people reading them and navigating by them was the way forwards. Or backwards. I learnt my area because I had to. GPS is a great innovation, and it makes our lives easier and mostly means getting to patients faster, but it’s all too easy to become totally reliant on it. The new generation of staff now fall to pieces at the mere mention of Doris (or Ms Kitty) having a bit of a snooze, or the satellites not aligning in the sky. The only problem both Doris and the mapbook have, especially where I work, is that new roads are constantly being built, and that’s when local knowledge really comes into play! Well said Chris!!! 

  • Oh, and whilst I’m here, welcome back to regular blogging! You’ve been missed…. 

    • Ckemtp

      Thanks buddy! It’s good to be back. And nice work on your stuff recently. I loved the poem about Rain on the Windows.

  • Guest

    I volunteer for a collegiate service, so our response area is our campus and a few pieces of the surrounding area (much smaller response area than most services). We don’t have a GPS of any kind in our trucks and are REQUIRED to memorize the location of every single road and building in our response area before we are allowed to drive the truck.

  • I am a volunteer in a rural mountain fire service. We have GPS units in the rigs, but no one ever uses them. We have way too many roads that the GPS and even mapping services such as bing or Google simply don’t know exist. I’m 19 and I was fortunant to have a dad that taught me how to use a road map. I can hop into a rig, look at the map book and say, “Ok, turn left out of the station.”

    I’ll admit, I love the GPS navigation features on my phone, but I still get seriously annoyed with it at times.

  • Madmeg

    Agree entirely, new staff are too reliant on GPS and half can’t use maps. That said recently responded to a job on a forestry road. Using local knowledge and the map I guided us down a twisting winding, single track, muddy, steep road to – a locked gate onto the road we wanted to be on. The firetruck had come in the same way and there was no where to turn around, necessitating some interesging skidding backwards down the hills to get out of their way. Turned out the forestry company had bulldozed a whole new link road in from a diferent direction- not marked on our old maps OR on the GPS or on the internal local knowledge cells. Fortunately the fire guys had had the sense to bring a key holder along with them but getting the vehicles up the last bit of the now abandonned road was – er interesting!

  • Smileyrie

    Love it when you sit at a dead end with the GPS insisting you can go straight or turn there & try & figure out how you can cross a creek in a Merc Sprinter! And the good old GPS is very stubborn at those times

  • Dale Loberger @hp_ems

    I know everyone keeps saying that it is the GPS that is telling them to go somewhere, but all a GPS can do is tell you where you already are.  There is software inside that little box with data of varying degrees of accuracy that is making the decisions to tell you where to go.  I know I am anal about those things, but don’t blame a good technology because it is partnered with some lame software and bad data.  There are good guidance systems out there and there are bad ones – just like partners.  Find a good one and become friends with it and avoid pairing up with the troubled ones.

  • Reading your article put a recognizing smile on my face, the more things change the more it stay the same…..

  • yep, scenario 1 and scenario 2, been there.  gps is truly great, especially when dispatch wants an eta, but not so great when it takes you on a road that is PLANNED and not actually a road.  the paper maps are great, unless the page you want is missing.  i use both, and still have to call dispatch in a panic for directions every once in a while.

  • this is one of the most overlooked part of our work: getting to the scene and to the hospital on the FIRST try without any wrong turns. does it happen 100% of the time? no. but there are lots of folks who don’t think it’s a big deal, and that’s a shame.