Gone are the days when calling 911 for help meant explaining that you lived in Sewell Franklin’s old farmhouse. While one might still occasionally be able to get away with that, depending on who’s on duty at the call center, the massive amount of growth and development in Sussex County can’t be ignored. With the influx of newcomers, new neighborhoods and new houses, a major overhaul on the 911 addressing system has been long due. Now, after about a decade of working on it countywide in unincorporated areas, the Sussex County officials are ready to help tackle 911 addressing in individual municipalities.
With that in mind, Megan Nehrbas, Sussex County 911 Project manager, and Terry Whitman, 911 administrator for the State of Delaware, made a presentation to the Fenwick Island Town Council and residents at a special meeting before the council meeting on Friday, Sept. 26. The Sussex County mapping and addressing department and the State of Delaware 911 administration shared a list of street naming and addressing concerns in respect to emergency response.
Among their recommendations was that “All streets containing alphanumeric addressing schemes should be readdressed.” For example, West Essex Street, where they recommend that all numbers on the even side of the road be shifted by three numbers due to the alphanumeric addresses of 2, 2A and 2B.
Residents were resistant to this first recommendation, noting that one of the numbers is a parking lot, but finally settled down enough to let Nehrbas and Whitman finish with their presentation. They brought up the fact that they are trying to get readdressing done right the first time, while thinking about future development, and, also, at the core of the project, thinking about public safety for all involved.
Other areas of concern include the condominiums facing West Atlantic Street and West South Carolina Avenue, which they recommend be re-addressed as being located on Coastal Highway.
Another recommendation is renaming both West Essex Street Extended and Farmington Street Extended, due to the fact that they extend nowhere. Whitman noted that there is a water body separating West Essex Street and Essex Street Extended, which could cause delay after emergency personnel turn down the wrong road only to find out the road they need is across the water and the only way to get there is to backtrack – while wasting valuable time.
Nehrbas also brought up specifically West West Virginia Avenue, referring to the redundancy and repeated directionals.
“They could think you are stuttering when you call,” she said. “They don’t know.”
After a resident brought up the point that many people now exclusively use cellular phones, Whitman replied, “That’s an excellent point. And that is why it is crucial that the mapping date stays up-to-date. If it is incorrect, it will map incorrectly [while retarding emergency response]. He also added that more than half of all callers call from cell phones. “Fifty-two percent of our calls are cellular-based,” he said. “So we need to make sure whatever address scheme we have, we have it good.”
Since the 911 project is wrapping up for the county, program officials are now trying to assist towns with any changes that might need to be made. Municipalities are, notably, exempt from the county’s requirement for five-digit addressing — which has caused addresses in most non-incorporated areas of Sussex to be changed in recent years.
That change is something Police Chief William Boyden said has already made it easier for Fenwick Island police when they are responding to calls. If the call is to a five-digit address, they know right away that it is in Delaware State Police jurisdiction, rather than that of the FIPD.
Nehrbas emphasized that any changes to addresses inside town limits are in the hands of the town council, saying they were merely available as a consultant to try to help them see any problem areas and assist with a solution.
Residents asked if they had a plan to work together with different entities so people affected would not have to spend a lot of time, energy and money changing their addresses more than once. Nehrbas answered that they were currently working with U.S. Postal Service and other government entities but noted that the suggested changes were voluntary and up to the town’s discretion.
“The responsibility lies with the local authority, not U.S.P.S.,” said Nehrbas, after being asked who actually “owns” addresses and has the authority to change them. “If you need our help, we are here to explain it to your council what it is we do, and how we do it and to make sure everyone is safe.”
Whitmas then explained that TeleHas and U.S.P.S. will not correctly get an address if it is not correctly hooked up with the local 911 system. “If it’s not on 911, it’s not on theirs,” he said.
By the end of the talk, some of the residents started to acknowledge problems with some road names in Fenwick and conceded that, many times, they are staring at a delivery-person across the water when he should be at their house.
Councilman Todd Smallwood commented that it is an important public safety issue, not to be taken lightly. “This is more than just GPS and pizza delivery — it’s scary.”
He assured residents that they would be involved with any specific changes the town did decide to move ahead with. “Certainly, we will engage the residents, notify them, etc., if something is specific to them — we want your input.”
“And roads won’t be renamed with anybody’s last name, so don’t even try it,” joked Council Member Chris Clark.
Whitman acknowledged that change is not always easy, but he and Nehrbas were united in the message that public safety, and adequate and efficient emergency response time, is the bottom line.
“Changing addresses is never popular,” he said. “But, West West Virginia Avenue? That’s horrible.”