Posted 8/18/15 (Tue)
By Nicky Ouellet
County dispatch receives the calls one after another -- nine 911 dials and hangups in rapid succession. They come from a cell phone located somewhere in the north end of Tioga.
Police Officer Matthew Ballantyne arrives at the address dispatch calls out, but no buildings display the number given.
The closest building is a three-story housing complex, so Ballantyne responds as he was trained: he clears the entire building, door by door. He finds nothing, but knows that as the responding officer, it’s critical he find the caller immediately.
On a hunch, he moves to the building across the street, a newly erected business. There he encounters the caller, who accidentally hit the emergency dial button on his cell phone.
“By wild instinct I happened to come across the place,” Ballantyne said a few weeks after the incident. “That’s total luck of the draw.”
Houses that aren’t numbered properly, as well as a small lag in newly appointed addresses showing up in county maps, sometimes hamper response times of police and other emergency personnel.
At a recent city commission meeting, Police Administrator Jeff Spivey brought up the issue and requested the city strengthen its ordinance requiring houses to be numbered.
“I think a numbering rule for the whole town is appropriate,” he said.
Currently, city ordinance requires all buildings within city limits to display their assigned number. But many houses and trailers in town do not, and it’s unclear whether the ordinance applies to the individual lots within the city’s RV camps.
Commissioners voted to look into modifying the existing ordinance to include houses, campers and trailers.
On the front line
For any emergency call, police respond before fire crews or EMTs to ensure the area is cleared of potential dangers.
Domestic violence calls, where timing can mean the difference between life or death for the victim, are especially dangerous for emergency personnel. In these cases, first responders walk into an already violent situation without knowing key information like the layout of the building or if there are weapons inside.
Ballantyne says his goal is to create the best possible circumstances on the scene for EMTs to do their work successfully without coming to harm themselves.
“I don’t know all the guys here, but it’s a big deal to me for us to ask for them to come in and help us,” he said.
He recounts beating the ambulance to a potential suicide call from one of Tioga’s RV parks one day. The trailers weren’t numbered, and officers agonized over seconds lost finding the caller due to unclear directions.
They found her in time, but Ballantyne worries that may not always be the case.
“The longer we wait trying to figure out where that address is at, the longer it’s going to take for medical care to get in there,” he said.
Randall Pederson, who heads Tioga’s Fire and Ambulance Department, said ambulances have the convenience of following police crews to a scene. Sometimes they just look for flashing lights, he said.
Many of Tioga’s first responders are so familiar with the city’s streets that directions aren’t even necessary. When confusion does arise, Pederson said the 911 dispatch in Williston feeds directions to the crew once they are already underway.
But there have been instances, especially with the newer apartment developments, when unnumbered buildings hindered response.
“You can’t say respond to the blue apartment. They’re all the same color,” Pederson said. “It would be better if those companies that own those big apartment buildings could have them better numbered so we could know exactly where we’re supposed to respond.”
In general, Pederson says ambulance responders try to keep abreast of new developments in Tioga and the surrounding area.
“We’re used to going where people live, not their address,” he said, but also added, “I can’t say that it’s been a problem.”
Tioga Fire Department chief Jim McGinnity agreed, adding the bigger problem is when callers don’t know where they are.
“We’ve been on some wild goose chases, where people thought they were at one address, and they were two to three miles from where they thought they were,” he said.
In those cases, it would be better for a caller on a cell phone to stay on the line so dispatch can “ping” their phone to find their location, he said.
A changing city
“You have to know your community from a three dimensional perspective,” said Ballantyne, sitting at his desk under a large, detailed satellite image of Tioga.
Part of police training is spent learning every street, avenue and back alley of the city, but in recent years new developments have sprung up faster than the county can add them to official maps.
Mike Schnetzer is senior GIS analyst with Ulteig Engineers, the company Williams County contracts to keep maps current. Schnetzer works remotely to update everything from changes in zoning to new subdivisions to new school district boundaries to city annexations.
“That’s probably the biggest challenge is keeping up with the changes,” he said. “So every month there’s new developments or subdivisions that are approved, and then it’s kind of a ripple effect.”
That ripple effect is what happens after city or county commissioners approve a change. Before the order crosses Schnetzer’s desk, it has already passed through the recorder’s office, the assessor’s office and the building department.
County agencies and departments receive these changes instantaneously, but public maps, which are accessible on the county’s website, are only updated once a month.
For Tioga’s Police Department, the small lag matters less than physical buildings not clearly displaying their numbers.
Though most houses in Tioga are numbered, some display numbers on the wrong side of the house, or in colors that do not contrast against their background.
High density housing is especially problematic, said Spivey and Ballantyne. Most of the RV parks in town only number individual lots on the electric hookup with stickers not visible to a passing car.
Some officers have uploaded copies of the parks’ lot maps to their patrol car computers, but say it would be easier if the trailers themselves were numbered.
“Numbering for $3 is a cheap price to pay for us to locate you in an emergency,” Spivey told commissioners last week.
“You always think of what can happen, and if time is of the essence to get someone to a hospital, then time is valuable,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to be as best identified as possible.”