Last April, Chilmark resident Elizabeth Pickett Gray switched her telephone service from Verizon to Comcast. When her Comcast bill arrived, it listed her house and business address as 64 State Road in Aquinnah rather than Chilmark.
The address mixup alerted Ms. Gray to a more serious problem.
Because addresses for 911 response calls are on a different database than carriers’ billing addresses, an incorrect billing address does not mean that 911 information is incorrect. But Ms. Gray learned that, in her case, both her billing address and her 911 response address were wrong.
Ms. Gray undertook an ultimately successful six-month campaign to correct what seemed simple error. Frustrated after continued phone conversations and e-mails to her carrier, Ms. Gray enlisted the aid of Chilmark Fire Chief David O. Norton and The Times to correct the problem of duplicate addresses in contiguous communities.
Mr. Norton intervened to correct her 911 address error. Last week, after being contacted by The Times, a Comcast official called Ms. Gray to assure her that her billing address has been corrected.
Her efforts were fueled by her concern that in an emergency, responders to a 911 call would mistakenly go to 64 State Road in Aquinnah if she were to place a call from her Chilmark home and that other residents may have her problem.
Aquinnah and Chilmark are the only towns among 60 Cape and Island communities that not only share some identical street addresses, they also share the same zip code and the same 645 telephone number prefix, essentially a perfect storm for data entry error.
Conversations with Rick Jones, operations issues director of the National Emergency Number Association, and with Tom Ashe, deputy director of Massachusetts 911 department, established that problems with duplicate addresses are rare but generally occur in smaller communities which share a common street name and street numbers in each town.
“That (duplication) may only occur in one or two percent of addresses locally, but nationwide, that’s a lot of addresses,” Mr. Jones said last week.
“I like Comcast’s products, that’s why I switched. My concern is about emergency response calls. It’s important that the information is accurate for the responders,” Ms. Gray said. “It takes longer to respond and get to the hospital from up-Island and we can’t risk sending responders to an incorrect address, when every second can count,” she said.
While local, state and national 911 government officials say Ms. Gray’s is a probably a rare case, it’s difficult to determine whether there are others here. Chilmark and Aquinnah officials say that’s because they don’t have access to Comcast’s billing system or to the 911 address database called the Master Street Address Guide (MSAG), which the state oversees and is used and updated on-Island by the Dukes County sheriff’s department which handles Island 911 calls.
“We know there is one incorrect address. There may be others involving other carriers as well. We don’t have access to providers’ address lists to check. I recommend people check the address on their phone bills. If it is wrong, that’s a pretty good sign there is an issue,” said Tim Carroll, Chilmark’s director of emergency preparedness.
“We get calls (questioning 911 accuracy) from time to time. Not often, but it happens,” said Aquinnah police officer Steve Mathias said.
The MSAG addresses are linked to two other software programs. Those systems, called Automatic Locator Index (ALI) and Automatic Number Index (ANI), display the address and the number tied to the caller’s phone number on computer screens at the Island-wide communications center when emergency 911 calls are received by the Island-wide communications center at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional Airport. Based on the information provided, dispatchers direct responders to the call location, Susan Schofield, communications center supervisor, explained.
How Ms. Gray’s 911 information went astray is unclear. Mr. Norton and Ms. Schofield attest that they had to correct Ms. Gray’s 911 address information and sent an advisory to Comcast last fall. However, a Comcast official said last week he was confident that the carrier had adhered to its specific rules to insure accuracy at the time Ms. Gray requested service. Marc Goodman, a Comcast public information officer in Boston, also said 911 information is based on the ALI database and uses different protocols than the company’s billing system.
Mr. Goodman said that address information accompanying a request for telephone service “is tested against a physical address before telephone service is provided to a customer. If the information is not accurate, we do not provide service,” he said.
After being apprised of the problem, Mr. Goodman confirmed last week that the company has apologized to Ms. Gray for the delay in correcting the billing error and assured her that emergency response to her home and business has never been compromised. “We do not believe Ms. Gray’s 911 address was incorrect or that other Island residents should be concerned (about inaccuracy),” he said.
Several emergency number officials said the best fix is to formally change one of the duplicated addresses. And that’s where politics comes in. Who wants to change their address? How do you determine that? one industry veteran asked.
“The 911 system is much more complicated than the public realizes,” Mr. Jones said.
How to Test Your 911 Service
There is a simple way for Island residents to check 911 emergency service, Communications Center supervisor Major Susan Schofield said.
1. Call the center’s business line at 508-693-1212. Do not call the emergency number, which must remain free to field actual emergency calls, Ms. Schofield said.2. Tell the officer who answers that you want to check your 911 information for accuracy.3. Ask whether the center is free to do a check at the time of your call.4. If the center can accommodate, you will be instructed to hang up and call the 911 emergency line. At that point, callers can verify the information that is displayed on the call center computer screen.5. If the call center is busy, ask for an alternative time to do a check.