Intervention from their U.S. senator has given officials in several predominantly rural Pennsylvania counties new hope in their long-running quest to convince technology company Google to fully update its mapping data for their region, following a comprehensive campaign to improve street naming and addressing.
The four counties in question are Montour County, the state’s smallest county at 132 square miles, Columbia County next door, which at 490 square miles, is nearly four times as big; and parts of neighboring Northumberland and Schuylkill counties. All are in the eastern-central part of the state.
Pennsylvania has urged smaller counties to eliminate duplication by merging their 911 services, according to Montour County Commission Chairman Ken Holdren. Facing an estimated $2.1 million cost to update its 911 equipment, which was at end of life, officials realized their best option was to join with neighboring Columbia County in a shared dispatch center. The project began in earnest in January 2016, but first, authorities had to address longstanding idiosyncrasies in addressing and street naming.
Two jurisdictions in neighboring counties immediately south of Montour and Columbia were also covered by the new 911 center and were affected by the lack of a Google update: Riverside, a borough in Northumberland County, and Rush Township in Schuylkill County. Ultimately, nearly all home and business addresses in Montour County, Rush Township and Riverside were changed, The Danville News wrote recently.
Columbia County’s existing computer-assisted dispatch system already followed a format that carefully assigned house numbers per mile, “in a sequence from major arteries,” county Commissioner Chris Young told Government Technology. Montour County didn’t have that.
“They were really kind of hodge-podge. So, when we decided to merge our 911 centers, one of the things that had to happen was Montour had to adopt that scheme,” Young said.
Issues included building numbers that were out of sequence; even and odd numbering on the same side of the street; and street or road names in more than one location within the same jurisdiction.
“Some streets, we had numbers going up on one side and down on the other. You can imagine all the chaos created when there’s an ambulance call,” said Dan Hartman, vice chairman of the Montour County Commission.
Neither Columbia County nor Montour County utilized Google mapping in their first responder coordination pre-merger, and neither does so now. But some first responders may use the service in their vehicles as equipment levels and procedures vary.
“It depends on the vehicle of the responders. In our area, everything is volunteer and different apparatuses have different systems,” Holdren said.
The agencies completed the readdressing and renaming in about five months during early 2017, mailing out change-of-address notices to residents in June 2017 and updating hard copy map books for first responders, according to Tim Murphy, GIS director for Columbia and Montour counties.
In July 2017, officials sent Google their updated data through its portal, following up in October and November, at which point Murphy said the company indicated that it was not able to provide any information on its data import process. The GIS director followed up again in January and was notified that the company would not be able to share a timeline for the update.
Since then, some addresses have been updated but many others, including public safety facilities, still need to be changed. No life-or-death situations have yet resulted during emergency response, but to be safe, county administrators have asked residents whose address numbers changed, to display both their old and new numbers.
“People are putting their lives in the hands of Google. Every time you turn on GPS, you’re trusting that information is correct. I can tell you, if you’re traveling through Montour County in central Pennsylvania or the lower section of Columbia, it’s wrong. That verges on criminal to me, if something happens,” said Young, who contacted GT recently after reading about a blacklisting issue that Brown County, S.D., experienced with Gmail addresses. That problem has since been resolved.
“I give any vendor I talk to both addresses. Because I don’t trust anybody at this stage,” said Holdren, who told The News on May 8 that typing the current address for the Montour County Courthouse into Google Earth “takes you to the borough building."
In an email May 1, Genevieve Park, a member of Google’s communications and public affairs team, said the matter was being investigated.
“We’re currently looking into this with our team,” Park said.
In a statement on May 11, a Google spokesperson said the amount of time it takes to update an area covered by Google Maps can vary for several reasons, including the amount of time needed to vet and process different types of data.
"When we learn of inaccuracies on the map, we do our best to address the issue as quickly as possible," the spokesperson said.
The addressing issue re-emerged twice this week, even as officials learned that U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh, had facilitated a connection from the technology company to the agencies. Murphy said Google contacted Columbia County on May 7.
That evening, at the Riverside Borough Council meeting, Southside Fire Co. Chief Nick Fowler said he was afraid someone would ultimately get hurt, according to The Daily Item, a Sunbury newspaper.
“Everybody’s frustrated in the two counties,” Fowler said, referring to Columbia and Montour counties.
On May 8, Montour County Commissioner Trevor Finn told a Riverside Borough Council member that “a fix” may be on the way, according to The News.
Steve Kelly, press secretary to Sen. Toomey, told GT that the senator’s Harrisburg office had heard from commissioners in Columbia and Montour counties, and communication had been made.
“I think it was probably just linking one to another. Our office reached out to the contacts we have and told them about the difficulties Columbia and Montour counties were having reaching them and asked them to reach out. And then they did,” Kelly said.
“They have resent the information to Google, only this time, they’ve actually sent it to an actual individual. So they have the data but they haven’t done anything with it,” Young said on May 11.
Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.