Ga. city wants to rename streets to improve 911 response

Some residents are resisting the idea; cell calls don't always automatically provide the caller's location

By Ralph Ellis
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ROSWELL, Ga. — The woman, gasping for breath and slurring her words, telephoned the Roswell 911 Center from her car. Before she stopped talking, the woman said she was on Maxwell Road.

Roswell has two streets with that name, so dispatchers sent units to both locations. Rescuers found her at the Maxwell Road near the eastern city limits. She'd forgotten to take her meds and recovered.

To avoid this kind of confusion, Roswell is talking about renaming about 30 streets that have identical or similar names. The Maxwell Road in the middle of town, for instance, might become Maxwell Street.

But instead of welcoming improved public safety, many residents are upset. Petitions have been signed and complaints voiced at public meetings.

"There's no public outcry," said resident Kurt Miller, whose street name might change. "We've never experienced a problem with delayed response time. We feel it's kind of a sledge hammer solution to a problem that will have very little gain."

The confusion on street names happens only when the 911 center answers cell phone calls. Unlike land-line calls, cell calls don't always automatically provide the caller's location. Dispatchers have to obtain addresses through conversation, which may be difficult if the caller is injured or excited.

Police Chief Ed Williams, the point man on the project, said public safety must trump convenience.

"I don't want to wait until there's a tragedy and say, 'Now we can fix it,' " Williams said. "I've got to get in front of this."

The key to handling 911 calls is location, location, location — of the caller. Other 911 centers in metro Atlanta had worse experiences because addresses were mishandled.

Earlier this year, DeKalb County updated software for its Computer-aided Dispatch Center, which handles all 911 calls, and lost an unknown number of addresses. After going into anaphylactic shock because of an allergic reaction to pine nuts, one man waited 34 minutes for an ambulance. The man said he was forced to give himself an injection while waiting for the paramedics.

In August 2008, a Fulton County 911 dispatcher sent an ambulance to Wells Street in Atlanta rather than Wales Street in Johns Creek. A 39-year-old woman died of a blocked artery. Johns Creek decided to join forces with Sandy Springs to start their own 911 center.

Williams said Roswell dispatchers have never caused big problems by sending a fire truck or ambulance to a wrong address.

Miller, a resident of Richfield Court for 10 years, says the city is overreacting to what is only a potential problem. Richfield Court might become Richfield Way, the better to distinguish it from Ridgefield Court and Ridgefield Drive on the other side of this town. All 10 households on Richfield Court have land lines and every resident opposes the idea, he said.

Barbara Durham, a resident of Brooks Glen near the Brookfield Country Club, said the city needs to take responsibility for finding a solution, by improved equipment or training.

"Don't put the burden on the residents," she said. "You did it, you correct. That's something I've always lived by."

Williams said Roswell has so many streets with similar or the same names because of annexations and because developers used to name their own subdivision streets without city clearance. Seven of the confusing street names on Williams' list are in Mountain Park, the town of about 500 next door to Roswell. Roswell contracts to provide police and 911 services.

The street name problem only concerns cell phones, which account for about three-fourths of the 100,000 calls answered annually at the Roswell 911 Center.

When someone calls from a land line, the address of the call automatically pops up on a computer screen in the 911 center. With a cell phone call, getting the location of the caller is uncertain.

The Federal Communications Commission has required cell hone carriers since 2005 to provide a means so 911 centers can determine the location of an emergency cell phone call. In reality, that doesn't happen all the time. Roswell has up-to-date equipment, Williams said, but the dispatchers usually see nothing more than the caller's cell phone number and the location of the tower the call bounced off.

Only about 15 percent of cell calls received at the Roswell 911 Center provide the caller's longitude and latitude, he said. When a reporter visited the 911 center for about 30 minutes last week, half a dozen cell calls were answered and none showed the caller's location.

Elaine Sexton, 911 program administrator for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said cell phone reception at a 911 center is affected by the age and maker of the phone, the equipment at the 911 center, the location of the caller and other factors.

"It's never going to be 100 percent accurate with a cell phone," she said.

Residents opposed to changing their street names say technology will improve soon and make it needless to change street names. Eventually all cell phones will provide specific locations, they predict.

But nobody is sure when the cell phone companies will actually reach that point, said Nancy Diamond, a city council member. If it's two years, waiting might be the best thing to do, she said. If it's 10 years, maybe not.

Council member Betty Price said it's hard to turn down an idea that's supposed to improve public safety, but she doesn't see a real problem yet. Government too often tries to fix things that aren't broken, she said.

"You're injecting potentially more confusion than already exists," she said. "It's the law of unintended consequences."

The city still has a lot of questions, so no decision is expected soon. Mayor Jere Wood had only one prediction: "We're going to upset people either way."

Copyright 2010 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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