Public Safety & Homeland Security

Proposed Addressing Standard Could Boost Emergency Response

Inaccurate addresses cause potentially fatal delays in emergency response, but a proposed standard could improve the situation.

by Corey McKenna / March 3, 2010
Michael Rieger/FEMA

More than 300 million U.S. residents trust that their addresses are accurate and emergency responders can find their houses when they dial 911. Yet fire chiefs, 911 coordinators and GIS professionals say the addressing system that’s the foundation of their jurisdictions’ call-routing systems contain potentially dangerous errors and the ordinances that define how addresses are displayed are insufficient or not enforced.

In January, Sebring, Fla., emergency response officials told the Highlands Today that fire and ambulance crews are sent to incorrect addresses several times a month and that a disaster could happen if the city’s addresses aren’t fixed.

The situation is similar in Orleans Parish, La., where inaccurate addresses have caused delays for police officers responding to burglaries, said Kathrine Cargo, the GIS/mapping coordinator for the Orleans Parish Communication District.

Cargo attributes this to the haphazard way in which addresses get assigned to new developments in the parish. In New Orleans, new addresses are assigned by the Office of Safety and Permits with input from developers and utility companies.

“If somebody wants to go out there and put a pole in to get electrical power to start working on something, [Safety and Permits will] just assign an address," Cargo said. “That address gets entered into the Safety and Permits address, then the developer comes in and he says, ‘No, we’re going to have 20 lots in this subdivision and they’re all going to be addressed with two number addresses.’ So you’ve got a record now for City Park Avenue, but no, it’s only going to be 10 City Park Ave. or something.”

Then that erroneous information can get passed onto utilities or the city Assessor’s Office. It then falls to the dispatchers in the public safety answering points to get the correct address from the caller and notify Safety and Permits of the change.

“We can run programs and say, ‘These addresses are out of order, or you’ve got an odd address on the even side,’” Cargo said. “So I sort of accommodate them by letting them know when I find discrepancies and giving them a heads up on any kind of issue that we find with addresses that could affect the way our emergency responders can respond.”

Unfortunately, Cargo said, coordination with the other city departments still comes down to the personal relationships she’s developed with people in those offices. “If I didn’t have a relationship with the people in Safety and Permits and the planning department and the Assessor’s Office and a couple of people over at [the local utility] and the Sewage and Water Board, you know, there would be so much less information flowing.” 

She’s optimistic that a new mayor in New Orleans, the potential for investment in new technology and a new addressing standard recently submitted to the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FDGC) will improve the accuracy of the addresses parish emergency responders rely on.

On Jan. 22, a group led by the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association and the National Emergency Number Association submitted the United States Thoroughfare, Landmark and Postal Address Data Standard to the FDGC for approval, with the intention of promoting some uniformity in how addresses are assigned, stored and shared between city, county, state and federal government agencies as well as the private sector.

Over the past five years, the Address Standards Working Group collected input from more than 400 stakeholders on a public wiki, and the draft standards were posted and commented on by the community. 

Cargo said with the coming of next-generation 911, GIS is going to be as important as the computer-aided dispatch map. “So accuracy in the GIS map in the 911 center is really going to be essential. Having this address standard is going to feed into that by giving us kind of a road map to how to get to accurate addresses that are standardized; so that when we do have an emergency, we can kick them up to the state [emergency operations center] and they’ll be able to follow them, read them and understand what they’re looking at. Or we can pass them out to the parish next door — just giving us the ability to share information a lot more easily.”

[Photo courtesy of Michael Rieger/FEMA.]