Help us help you.

That’s the message coming from local dispatchers, police, fire and ambulance workers from around the county, who say they sometimes struggle to find those who call 911 in an emergency because their house numbers are outdated, not easily visible, or, in some cases, not displayed at all.

Owen Smith, director of the Waldo County Regional Communications Center, says
the enhanced 911 system is always improving in terms of being able to accurately trace the location of an incoming call, but when it comes time to locate someone in the event of a crisis, emergency workers could use a little help from the locals.

“It is a problem,” said Smith. “We’ve got houses out on the East Waldo Road that still have RR 5 numbers on them. When we changed out the system, the towns went to all numbered roads.”

The Emergency Services Communication Bureau, the state agency responsible for Enhanced 911 in Maine announced that all of Maine’s population had enhanced 911 service by July of 2008. In the years prior to that time, Smith said, towns around the state crafted ordinances, logged changes to road names and updated town records with additional names of private ways, which Smith said must carry an official road name if there are more than two residences located on the same driveway.

During that preparatory process, Smith said some towns went the extra mile to make sure all residents would update their house numbers.

“Some towns furnished the numbers, and the people just went in [to the town office] and got them,” recalled Smith.

In towns where the numbers were not provided, Smith said some residents did adequately outfit their homes with the new numbers, and did so in the way that was dictated by the Maine Department of Public Safety Emergency Services Communication Bureau. Some specifications from the bureau include using reflective material to mark homes, driveway entrances and both sides of mailboxes with the new numbers.

Some took the switch over quite seriously. Smith said one man from Jackson was concerned enough about the ability of police, ambulance or fire crews to find him in an emergency, he contacted the county communications center to make sure the address that showed up in the E911 system when he called in was indeed the correct one.

Because the enhanced system uses several tools, including a mapping program, to pinpoint the exact location of a caller using a land line, Smith said the system is quite accurate in terms of showing a dispatcher where a call is coming from.

Land lines versus cell phones

While Smith said the system in general has improved significantly over the years, E911 is not fool-proof.

Smith said one problem he is seeing a lot these days is the increased preference of the public to use a cell phone in lieu of a home phone.

“Cell phones can be a challenge. One of the smartest things people can do is to call in and see what happens when you call 911,” said Smith, adding that residents wishing to do so should call WCRCC at 338-2040, and not by dialing 911.

That way, said Smith, residents will know how well the E911 system can track them down when they are using a cell phone.

The reasons for this, said Smith, are many. Those using an internet-based phone service like Vonage, he said, can run into trouble if they opt to use their computer, phone or both at a location that differs from their home address.

“If your Vonage line is at 446 Swan Lake Avenue, you could take your computer and your phone into Belmont but the address would still show up as Swan Lake Avenue,” said Smith.

Cell phone calls coming in from people who use either Verizon or AT&T as a provider, said Smith, automatically get sent to the state regional call center in Augusta. That means a caller must go through the initial motions of offering basic details about the nature of their call before they are switched over to the WCRCC, at which time they must begin the call process over again.

But that, said Smith, is expected to change.

“Within the next year we will be receiving Verizon and AT&T [calls],” said Smith, adding that the only cell phone provider that does get directly connected to WCRCC is U.S. Cellular.

But even cell phones provided by U.S. Cellular can prolong response time for emergency crews, said Smith, because “cell phones do not give you an exact location like a land line does.”

Typically, when someone typically calls 911 from a cell phone, Smith said the E911 mapping system will offer the dispatcher a general location, usually within a couple of houses.

“As we re-ping it, it may come in a bit closer,” said Smith.

Smith said WCRCC dispatchers are trained to deal with such situations, and often take several steps to make sure they know the precise location of a caller.

“We ask you to verify the address that you’re calling from,” said Smith. “If our screen shows us you’re at 208, and you’re saying you’re at 206, we’re going to ask if you’re sure you’re at 206 because our system is showing you at 208.”

Getting around the challenges

Address verifications, said Smith, are important steps that can avoid a tragedy, but sometimes it’s not enough. Smith recalled a February 2001 incident when a Florida woman died after her vehicle skidded into a canal and sank. The woman had called 911, but according to media reports about the incident, she was unable to offer a detailed description of her location because she was fairly new to the area. She was also using a cell phone to call for help. By the time police and divers located her car about 50 minutes later, the woman had drowned.

Smith said he never wants to see that kind of scenario in Waldo County, which he said is why it is so important to update and post house numbers.

The concern is always there, though, as Smith said oftentimes a caller needing emergency assistance is hurt, sick, and unable to speak clearly, if at all.

“We’re always concerned about the call from a person who can’t talk, or a call that comes in from a child,” said Smith. “… If they can’t talk to us, they can’t verify their address. Then we’re going to go by whatever is showing up on the screen.”

Dispatchers will then send an officer or ambulance to the location that appears in the system. A visible and accurate house number is the best way for folks to make sure their residence is easily visible, but Smith said there are still ways to direct emergency crews to the right place in a pinch.

If a caller has someone else with them at the residence, Smith said dispatchers will advise them to go out and stand at the head of the driveway, or throw a sheet over a mailbox. Parking a vehicle at the end of a driveway with its flashers on is another way to grab the attention of emergency workers, said Smith.

Overall, Smith said it is more important for residents to go out of their way to label their homes properly than to worry about overkill.

“There’s no such thing,” said Smith with a smile.

It’s not a good feeling’

The ones who are arguably the most frustrated by inaccurate or nonexistent home numbers are local police officers, fire officials and ambulance directors, who are charged with finding a caller after they have dialed 911.

Interim Belfast Police Chief Walter Corey said Belfast is no different than its neighboring towns in terms of a widespread need to get property numbers up-to-date.

“There are still a lot of houses that aren’t numbered,” said Corey. “In some of the rural areas, having those numbers on both sides of the mailbox would be very helpful, especially if they’re reflective.”

Corey said he’s seen many homes that have the new address number posted on the house next to the old property number, which only causes confusion for officers who are heading to a heated domestic dispute, for example.

“There’s been more than once when we’ve had a hot call and we’re sitting outside trying to see what house it is,” said Corey. “It’s not a good feeling for an officer.”

Searsport Police Chief Dick LaHaye said his department has also struggled with the public’s lack of compliance to the E911 addressing changes.

“In a lot of cases, it’s much harder for us,” he said. “A lot of the things we are called out to are happening inside a house. A firefighter might sometimes be able to see the scene of the fire, but we, as police officers, don’t always have that luxury.”

Unfortunately, LaHaye said, those are often the calls in which “time is of the essence.”

Many cruisers, said LaHaye, are now equipped with GPS units that can give an officer the exact location of a residence, but that’s as long as the house number is known to the caller and/or WCRCC dispatchers.

“The technology is there, we can plug that number right in and find someone,” said LaHaye. “If we have the number.”

Searsport Ambulance Chief Cory Morse said the days where everyone knew their neighbors have mostly passed, which creates another hardship for emergency workers that they might not have contended with as much in the past.

“We have a lot of local guys, but now a lot of my crew are either not originally from the area, or they just don’t remember where people live,” said Morse.

“We’re losing a lot of our historians,” added Smith, noting that two of the WCRCC dispatchers have more than 12 years of service under their belts. The remaining crew has five years of experience or less.

Searsport Fire Chief Jim Dittmeier said anything locals can do to help shorten the response time for emergency workers could mean the difference between life or death.

“A couple of minutes makes the difference, whether you have a medical emergency or a fire,” he said. “… It’s really frustrating for us to be out riding around looking for a place, especially at night.”

Dittmeier said a fire, for example, doubles in intensity every minute that it is left to burn. Having facts like that in mind when trying to reach a scene in a timely manner, said Dittmeier, can be an unsettling feeling for those who are coming to a resident’s aid.

Smith agreed.

“Wouldn’t we hate to think of someone out there who is living in a house with severe medical problems and an ambulance couldn’t find them for 45 minutes and the person dies,” said Smith. “The first thing someone’s going to do is damn the ambulance department.”

But Smith said it all comes back to making sure the people who can help can get to you when it matters most.

“It’s just like what the bureau said in the mailings that went out. If we can’t find you, we can’t help you,” said Smith.

The future of E911

There are many features that Smith said he is looking forward to seeing with the implementation of Next Gen 911, for which the bureau is currently collecting requests for proposals, according to its website.

For situations in which a caller cannot talk, Smith said, he expects the new system will feature a way that will allow callers to send a text message to WCRCC, something that callers cannot currently do.

There are many ways in which text messaging can work to a caller’s advantage, Smith said.

“If someone broke in your house and you were there hiding in your bedroom, we don’t want you talking,” said Smith.

Other potential changes are being examined at the state level, and not all of what is being considered sits well with Smith.

Last month, Public Safety Commissioner John Morris publicly stated that in the interest of saving money, Maine’s current level of 26 public safety answering points should be reduced to two — the WCRCC represents one of the 26 existing PSAPs, and also serves as the county’s dispatch center. This announcement followed the 2010 study that was requested by the Maine Public Utilities Commission called the Kimball Report, which recommended the reduction of PSAPs from 26 to 17 statewide.

“He cannot prove the economic feasibility of it,” said Smith of Morris’ recommendation, adding that the call volumes will not decline just because the number of answering points does.

While statewide media reports regarding Morris’ recommendation indicate that MPUC officials plan to follow the suggestions outlined in the Kimball Report, Smith said there are steps being taken on the local level to make sure the number of PSAPs remains at an adequate level.

Smith said Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, has since indicated that he will submit a bill urging the MPUC to follow the Kimball Report instead of Morris’ recommendation. Also, Smith said, the Maine Emergency County Communications Association (MECCA) has thrown its support behind reducing Maine’s PSAPs to 17 instead of two.

Smith said there is a lot at stake on this issue and that it is not a decision that will likely be rushed, but he’s ready for the firestorm that he said will inevitably come when the serious debate begins.

“It’s going to be a heated battle when it comes, because it cannot be justified, cost-wise,” said Smith of Morris’ recommendation. “Why are we reinventing what’s already working really well?”

Visibility is key

According to the Maine Department of Public Safety Emergency Services Communication Bureau, improperly posted addresses have continued to be a problem statewide.

“Recently, there have been several incidences where emergency responders were unable to locate a 911 caller because their address was not properly posted,” stated a recent mailing from the bureau.

Smith said county residents have received past mailings from the bureau urging residents to make sure their house numbers are updated and visible, but despite the warning, some residents have yet to do so.

“I think some people just don’t take it seriously,” said Smith.

But that attitude would quickly change in the event of an emergency, he said.

In its mailing to the public, the bureau offered several suggestions for updating and adding house numbers that Smith said would make a big difference for those who need to find a 911 caller in an emergency:

• Always post the numbers on the structure;

• If the structure is visible from the road, post the number on the mailbox and the structure. Smith added that numbers posted on mailboxes should be on both sides so that an emergency official can see it when approaching from either direction, and that the numbers should also be reflective for night use;

• If the structure is not visible from the road and the mailbox is not beside the driveway, post the number on the mailbox and erect a sign or a number post at the entrance of the driveway leading to the property;

• If the mailbox is located at the end of a private road, post the number and road name on both sides of the mailbox to avoid confusion of emergency responders who see property numbers that appear out of sequence;

• If property owners use post office boxes for their mail they still must post their 911 addresses;

• Put property numbers on both sides of the mailbox if it is located in front or across from a structure;

• Posted numbers must be high enough so the snow does not cover them;

• Posted numbers need to be a minimum of four inches high and have a contrasting color to the background, and the bureau advises residents to use reflective materials for their number to increase visibility, and;

• Post the 911 address and directions by a phone for easy emergency reference.