View from the Top

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the PSAP: Strategic planning for data integrity

Users at the PSAP must have up-to-date, reliable GIS data to ensure accurate location information is available for dispatch, because it can help save lives. To optimize GIS, there must be a viable-yet-flexible relationship between the GIS data, the GIS software, and the people accessing or using these resources.

By Charles Van Hoose

The importance of mission-critical Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data for call- and dispatch- mapping in the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) cannot be overemphasized. Accurate data, combined with tactical mapping, is critical for locating incidents and callers, dispatching appropriate resources, and communicating situational awareness to first responders.

Often overlooked when mapping software is deployed in the PSAP is a serious discussion about GIS data provisioning and maintenance. Users at the PSAP must have up-to-date, reliable GIS data to ensure accurate location information is available for dispatch. This is an important responsibility and an absolute necessity for PSAPs, which need the information to help save lives. 

To optimize GIS, there must be a viable-yet-flexible relationship between the GIS data, the GIS software, and the people accessing or using these resources. Mapping software provides the framework that lets the user work with the data. GIS data represents not only geographic features and physical elements, but authoritative boundaries delineating responsibilities to varying agencies. 

Call-takers need meaningful data that can accurately locate callers and be used to identify the appropriate resources to respond to the incident.  For example, enabling dispatchers to visually see the boundaries for the respective Law, Fire and EMS agencies in their area allows more effective dispatching.

But several key questions remain, including: What data is needed, who will maintain it, and how can the PSAP plan for future data development?

Many 911 entities around the country have well-defined GIS workflows to support their PSAP data-maintenance strategies. Connecting with industry leaders and learning from their successes—and mistakes should be part of an approach to meet the current demand for GIS solutions. It also improves planning for future challenges facing the 911 industry by helping PSAPs define their own strategies for identifying data types, maintenance responsibilities and continued data development. 

Depending on the structure of your agency, several disparate departments may be responsible for the maintenance of individual addressing datasets needed for PSAP maps. Those responsible for developing and maintaining the GIS data can have a substantial impact on the effectiveness of the map used for plotting 911 calls.

Clear communication about your strategy, current and future needs of the PSAP, and data deployment procedures are key when making sure they understand PSAP concerns. Call-taking personnel often have the greatest insight about what addresses actually exist and are alerted to changes or discrepancies against the current data being used in the map at the PSAP.

Part of your PSAP’s GIS readiness strategy should include clear communication channels for these data discrepancies to be reported, verified, and corrected with those responsible for the GIS data. Accurate addressing data in the PSAP is vital to effective call plotting and dispatching functions. This accuracy also should be evaluated regularly by those maintaining the GIS data through the use of validating software that can identify errors. 

Creating your GIS readiness strategy will take time and should evolve to meet the relevant conditions of your agency and PSAP architecture. A variety of state-of-the-art tools are available to help agencies develop their own unique strategies for preparing and maintaining their GIS data.  

You can create a viable-yet-flexible relationship between your GIS data, GIS software, and the people who access them for legacy 911, next-generation 911 and everything in between. 

A senior GIS analyst at West Safety Services, Charles Van Hoose orchestrates and develops all operations of GIS services relating to the deployment of dispatch mapping products. He  attended Stephen F. Austin State University, where he earned the first-ever B.S. in Spatial Science in 2010. 

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