“Location, location, location …”

Know your location, and you won’t waste time in an emergency trying to figure out where you are.  Photo: author

Know your location, and you won’t waste time in an emergency trying to figure out where you are.
Photo: author

A short time ago, I was walking through the French Quarter in New Orleans on a trip to visit friends. The cobblestone streets were busy that day with taxis zooming back and forth, locals going about their daily routines, and tourists roaming in and out of some of the most spectacular bars and restaurants on the planet. I was on foot and didn’t have the luxury of a vehicle during my outings through the city. As with visiting any new city, I had conducted some pre-mission planning, which included knowing where I was staying and where the nearest hospital, fire house, airport, steak house and Irish pub were located. My everyday carry (EDC) for that particular adventure consisted of a SureFire Lumamax, Tac Med Solutions Ankle Med Kit, Benchmade Adamas folder, and butane lighter. My concealed carry license has reciprocity with Louisiana, but I knew I would be enjoying a few alcoholic beverages at different establishments, so carrying my pistol was not a great idea. Not that I was planning an all-nighter, but I was on vacation and letting loose with friends. Not that my guard was down … or so I thought.

The streets were filled with all sorts of distractions to throw my situational awareness off: street performers, drunk tourists, and let’s not forget that New Orleans has hands down the best people-watching you can ever experience! So there I was, keeping a sharp eye out, enjoying the sights and sounds. But as I was walking down a less popular side street a few blocks off the main drag, it dawned on me that I really didn’t know exactly where I was. I knew I was in the French Quarter a few blocks down from Bourbon Street … but not an exact address.

Why was that such a big deal for me? Well for one, if I had gotten into trouble and needed an ambulance or the police, I had no idea where to send them. I couldn’t just say, “Ya know, that bar on the corner” to the 911 operator. Every street corner had a bar! There wasn’t a street sign, just a street light on that particular block. I headed back to Bourbon Street, bellied up to the first bar I came to and calculated my exact position using my cell phone’s GPS app. After figuring out all the cool tricks the GPS app can do, I started tracking myself and occasionally stopped to pinpoint the address where I was. I made do with this until I got back to the hotel that evening.

I always carry a compass with me when I’m out in the woods, on the range, or in a strange new city.  Photo: author

I always carry a compass with me when I’m out in the woods, on the range, or in a strange new city.
Photo: author


As you can tell, it doesn’t take long for some folks to get turned around or lost. I’ve had plenty of both day and night land navigation courses in the U.S. Army. Whether I’m on one of the ranges back home that’s out in the country or hiking in the mountains, I wear a compass around my neck and tucked under my shirt. It becomes part of my EDC for that environment. Like any piece of equipment, you must know how to properly use it. There are other means of finding your way as well. Knowing how to maximize your smartphone’s GPS or map apps can either be helpful or downright confusing. My recommendation is to spend some time working with the phone app. There are several aftermarket apps and some work better than others. If you find one that you like, help your buddy out and leave a comment below on which one works best for you.


Another option is an actual GPS unit from companies like Garmin, Magellan, and Suunto. GPS units come in all shapes, sizes, and prices, and offer a wide array of features. These devices do require a bit of practice, but are great tools. It may take anywhere from a couple of seconds to a few minutes for the GPS unit to calibrate by linking up with satellites. During an emergency, that can eat up time you don’t have or prevent you from doing something else like patient assessment or bandaging someone.

Not only should you pay attention to the street name, but the block number is also important to know. For example, this is the 4300 block of Mockingbird Lane. Photo: author

Not only should you pay attention to the street name, but the block number is also important to know. For example, this is the 4300 block of Mockingbird Lane. Photo: author

Tips ‘n’ Tricks

With smartphones, GPS systems, compasses, and old school road maps, there are a few tricks you can use to help guide public safety officials to your location. Using landmarks such as a major shopping center or which corner of a town square you’re at can be helpful to a 911 operator. Terrain features like a body of water (local lake/pond/river/creek) or in between two hills down in a valley might be useful if you don’t know the area well. I’ve even told a 911 dispatcher to send an ambulance to the grocery store near the intersection of two major streets because even though I’d been going to that same store for 10 years, I didn’t know its physical address. That worked and everyone turned out OK. The point is that I got complacent and expected others to know where I was and what was going on … during an emergency. You can sure bet I learned that store’s address after that experience!

Whether you are involved in a violent attack or a car wreck, knowing your exact location is very important. I recommend having at least two methods for finding your location at all times, especially considering that the national average response time for EMS to arrive at your scene is nine to 12 minutes. Take the time to figure out all those little buttons on your smartphone or GPS unit. You can even make it a game with your family members, a sort of scavenger hunt. That way they too know how to find their own location should the need arise. You can just as easily start keeping track of major cross-intersections of the streets and roads you drive on. They (EMS/fire/police) can’t help if they don’t know where to go.

In the comments section, be sure to share the methods and tools you use to find your location.

Reply to Dennis
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13 Responses to ““Location, location, location …””

  1. Bill

    With years of EMS employment as a Paramedic and later as a Flight Nurse I can assure you this article illuminates a valuable point. Situational awareness is key to many aspects of personal and family safety. Know your s surroundings including your location in a way that can be communicated to others. The info in this article presents another valuable component of situational awareness or knowledge both subjective and objective elements in our surroundings….5 stars

  2. K. C. Adamek
    K. C. Adamek

    When traveling by car I pay close attention to the mile marker signs and road markers.

  3. Denver

    For smart phones, the Google Map app is about the best in terms of navigation of roads and highways when you have cell service available.

    When there is no cell service, or when you are on foot and away from inhabited areas, the app Gaia GPS is a very good alternative. It allows you do download a variety of different map sets for using offline when there is no cell service or WIFI. And if you like to hike or hunt in the backcountry, it is about the best GPS app for smart phones that I have found.

    • Durham

      If you have a route planned, in GoogleMaps, you can download the trip information, and surrounding areas, for offline use also. It is an option when the app is showing the intended route, and works when there is no cell service.

      As a former delivery driver one of the most useful things I’ve learned is the method used to apply addresses, especially in US cities, whose addresses are based in a block method (rather than a spoke used in many fortified cities). the last 2 numbers of the address approximate their position on the block (00-05 are often the first property closest to the intersecting road) and the listed street name/number is the street the main entrance faces.

  4. Don

    I am a licensed ham. I use a program called “APRSDROID” with my call sign issued to me via the FCC. Other people can look up my call sign and see where i am.

  5. Dennis

    New Orleans is crazy. The so-called “West Bank” is actually South and many roads follow the curve of the River. 5 stars for GPS, which usually works but not always.

  6. John Farrell
    John Farrell

    Thanks for mentioning this one! People get lost everywhere, not just in the woods!
    I have found the Gaia GPS app to be invaluable! Yes it can take up some storage space, and even eat into your battery life. (There are ways to minimize the battery drain.) However the options and use-ability are second to none!

  7. Mitch slot
    Mitch slot

    There are several compass apps out there. After a small but tedious initial calibration, there apps work fairly well, utilizing GPS satellite data and having a decent sensor array whereas the Accelerometer can discern the magnetic field and compensate for magnetic north. Check ’em out….mine was free.I like free!

  8. Mike Small
    Mike Small

    I want to second and expand the comment about highway mile posts. They are invaluable in police, fire, and medical situations. In each state they increase either from west to east and from south to north, depending on which principle direction the particular highway runs. On divided highways like Interstate Highways, when calling for emergency assistance, it is also a good idea to also state in which directional lane the emergency is located. For example, there is a vehicle fire at MP 201 along Interstate 15 in the northbound lane.

  9. Edd Ryan
    Edd Ryan

    I found this very helpful and informative. I hadn’t ever thought of carrying a “mini” field dressing kit.

  10. Dispatch 1345
    Dispatch 1345

    Before you leave familiar surrounding check your compass to make sure it points North!!!!! I have found that for whatever reason two of mine have “failed” over the years. I went to the local big chain sports store and checked several only to find out that a few of them did not point North!!!! Having a backup is a good idea!

  11. Jeff

    Before making your call, for iPhone users, and perhaps other smartphones, say “Where am I?”, then make your call.