Common Operating Picture

Common Operating Picture

A message primarily to: Operations members

Common Operating Picture

A key concept from the new radio Communications Manual


There’s a feature in the new CAD that’s supposed to help reduce response times.  It’s called Automatic Resource Location (ARL), and it is GPS-based.  When an incident needs an ambulance, ARL identifies the closest ambulance available.  Same for zone cars, etc.  But it has limitations, and surprisingly, it does not seem to have made much of a difference in our response times.

When picking an available unit to go to a call, the ARL feature has no knowledge of…

  • Closer units that are just about to become available
  • Closer units that are responding to a lower priority incident
  • Closer units that are just about to log in

The ARL only makes its calculations once.  It never recalculates.  So if it sends Ambulance 620 from Creeds to the Lesner Bridge, and twenty seconds later Ambulance 122 finishes a refusal at Westminster-Canterbury and becomes available, the ARL doesn’t alert anyone to the opportunity to get to the Lesner Bridge sooner.  Maybe the CAD will eventually be upgraded to do recalculations, but for now, it is what it is.

Think through this a step further:  In the example above, if Ambulance 122 silently marks Available on the MDT, and never heard that 620 was sent to the Lesner Bridge, then it’s very easy for everyone (even the dispatcher) to miss the obvious:  Ambulance 122 should now respond to the Lesner Bridge, and Ambulance 620 should cancel their response.  Oversights like this are not uncommon in our system.

The big change

If there were an opportunity for the dispatcher and all the on-air EMS personnel to have a shared understanding of where units are located when they go Enroute or become Available, we would be much closer to having a Common Operating Picture of what’s going on system-wide.  We would catch more opportunities to reduce response times.  We would also be safer, because long responses are more dangerous than short ones.

To improve our Common Operating Picture, there’s a simple practice we’d like personnel to adopt:

  • Upon being dispatched, announce BY VOICE that you are Enroute, and state your location.  Also mark Enroute on the MDT as soon as possible.  Examples:
    • Ambulance 424P, Enroute from Station 2
    • Zone Medic 2, Enroute from Princess Anne Hospital
  • When becoming Available, announce BY VOICE that you are Available, and state your location.  Also mark Available on the MDT as soon as possible.  Examples:
    • Ambulance 925P, Available at Holland & Rosemont
    • Zone Medic 19, Available in Station 18’s area


  1. Do we always have to do this?  No, we have a smart workforce and we trust your judgement.  Stating your location is very helpful when units are all over the place.  When you’re confident that most units are in their first due areas, it’s less useful, but certainly not harmful.
  2. If we’re just a little bit closer, should we say so?  No, because a tiny improvement in a response time is not worth the extra hassle and radio traffic.  But if you’re a lot closer, you should definitely speak up.
  3. Won’t this cause more radio traffic?  A little, for the sake of better patient care and efficiency.  But it will reduce questions like “Do you have an ambulance/zone assigned to this call?  What’s their ETA?”  Those transmissions won’t happen if the unit is already on the scene.
  4. Is this a permanent change?  We will be evaluating it closely and continuously to see if it’s beneficial.  If future upgrades to the CAD make it unnecessary, so be it.
My photo
Division Chief Kevin Lipscomb, NRP
Regulation & Support Services
Va Beach EMS Department