ESSENTIAL NON-MEDICAL FIELD SKILLS
WHEN GPS FAILS
Three valuable skills for locating patients every time
By Kate Dernocoeur, NREMT
My dog and I had our morning walk today through a neighborhood I’d been meaning to get to know
better. It’s a new development, an offshoot
from a more established area.
I started to turn down Abbey Mill Boulevard, but Google Maps set me straight, sending
us a half-mile further to Abbey Mill Drive. I
derived three benefits from this jaunt: a happy
dog, some good exercise and a better map of
the area in my head.
Who hasn’t been blindsided by similar
road names when traveling to the scene?
(It’s usually at night, in a blizzard and coming from the less-traveled direction.) Few
feelings are more helpless than knowing a
case is time-critical and being unable to find
Foremost among the many nonmedical
skills of a capable and efficient field provider is actually arriving at the patient’s side.
In the age of GPS and electronic navigation
systems, an onboard guide usually tells you
when to turn with a reassuring message that
“your destination is on the right.” But not
always … and there’s the value in knowing
your territory in your bones.
What do you do when technology doesn’t
cooperate, is inaccurate or isn’t available?
My cousin lives 17 miles outside her Montana town, where her neighbors had to post
a sign that reads, “Go back, your GPS is
wrong,” because tourists were consistently—
wrongly—guided to their house by faulty
If you’re relying only on technology, what
will you do if you’re forced to find another
way—literally? Short of sending out a smoke
signal asking the patient to send up a flare,
what can you do, especially for rural and wilderness calls?
It’s certainly helpful when callers can pro-
vide a clue—anything, such as blinking their
porch lights or posting someone at the road-
head to flag down incoming crews. When
other crews precede you, the good ones leave
breadcrumbs or other clues at divergent drive-
ways or paths. We help one another; that’s
the rule. But being first in can be a challenge.
Whether your scene is a convoluted apartment complex or a thousand-acre ranch, there
are three helpful skills to possess that will help
ensure you’re quickly at your patient’s side.
I know, paper maps are relics, and they can
be hard to use in a dark, bouncing vehicle.
But knowing how to read them efficiently
can matter. You’ll be ahead of the game by
having an up-to-date paper map with you
as a backup to your technology and knowing how to quickly pinpoint where you are,
where you need to go and the best route in.
It’s very reassuring to be able to translate a two-dimensional map to what you see
through the windshield, such as knowing a
particular feature that’s on the map should
be around the next bend and then seeing it
roll into view.
It also helps enormously to have an intuitive sense for the cardinal directions (north,
south, east and west). This skill is easily
gained through an idle-time mental game
of guessing which way is north, then confirming your hunch with a compass.
KNOW YOUR TERRITORY
Master your space ahead of urgent calls and
develop rock-solid knowledge of the lay of
the land. The best drivers know intuitively
how to get to anyplace from anywhere else in
the district. Be like them. They know where
that unmarked road just after the Jones’s dairy
barn leads. They know the back ways and
the shortcuts (and also not to use those they
aren’t 100% sure of).
Keep up with road construction, traffic
congestion patterns and your various route
options. Memorize street name sequences. If
you’re new to an area, study the district on
maps that allow you to notice how different
routes are related (or not). Tour your patch
often—even while off duty. Consciously build
a reliable mental map of the territory you
serve. Take a walk with your dog.
HONE SITUATIONAL AWARENESS
Complex navigational puzzles will sometimes
arise. Pay attention, look for clues and use situational awareness to work out the answers.
You’re called to a remote ranch for a chain-saw incident and there’s no one to usher you
in? Look for places someone might be cutting wood, watch for a parked ranch vehicle
or fresh tire tracks. Listen for a barking dog.
And when dispatch relays that the caller said
he was “north of the house” before he passed
out, you’ll be glad you played that mental game
My friend and wilderness guide, Manolo, is
one of those utterly unflappable people who
instilled in me a great lesson: Always have
a backup plan. If Plan A isn’t working, don’t
just have a Plan B, but have a Plan C and
Plan D, too.
Our Plan A is the convenience of modern technology that helps us efficiently find
our patients. It usually works. But do you
have the skills required for when the modern
systems fail or a natural disaster rearranges
What’s your Plan B, C and D? JEMS
Kate Dernocoeur, NREMT, has written
numerous books, articles and columns for
EMS readers. Her involvement with emergency care began in 1976, and she served
with Denver’s famous Paramedic Division
from 1979 to 1986. She’s now an EMT-firefighter with the Ada
(Mich.) Fire Department and a SARTECH-II with Kent County
Search and Rescue’s K- 9 unit. The fourth edition of her seminal book, Streetsense: Communication, Safety and Control, is
scheduled for release in 2019 by JEMS Books and Videos.