Oak Bluffs emergency responders face a confusing numbers game

Small reflective house number signs are available at no cost to Island property owners. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Recently, an Oak Bluffs ambulance responded to an emergency call for a man in cardiac arrest. It was 3 am. Rain was coming down in sheets. When the ambulance crew arrived at the right street, according to ambulance Chief John Rose, the medics found several long driveways, with no house numbers in sight. With little more to go on than a guess, they went to two houses and awakened the residents before finding the right home. That took time.

“In our business, seconds matter,” Chief Rose said. “Not minutes. Seconds.”

In another case last year, the ambulance was dispatched to a house where a baby was unresponsive. A distraught mother was unable to give dispatchers directions. On the remote street there were several houses, with no house numbers visible. Only good fortune got them to the right house.

“A 9-1-1 dispatcher could hear the siren over an open phone line,” Chief Rose said. By listening as the siren got louder and softer, the dispatcher directed the ambulance to the right house.

Sign security

Chief Rose does not want to leave the difference between life or death to guesses or good fortune.With the help of Major Donald Rose of the Dukes County Sheriff’s Department, Oak Bluffs is encouraging property owners to mark their houses with a reflective street number sign that helps emergency responders find the correct address.

Forms are available at the Oak Bluffs fire station for homeowners who want the signs. Chief Rose said the town and the sheriff’s department will take care of the rest. The sign will be constructed and installed at no charge to the homeowner. The small signs include a reflective street number on a metal plate, anchored securely with a metal post.

Street number signs are available to any Island property owner through the sheriff’s department program. “It’s at the level of your headlights, it’s clearly visible,” Chief Rose said. “Hopefully, a lot of people will take advantage of this. It will make a big difference.”

Numbers game

Because of negligence, confusion, or the fact that house numbers just aren’t used much on an Island where many people get their mail at a post office box, first responders often run into difficulty trying to find an address in an emergency.

“It’s frustrating for everyone involved,” Oak Bluffs police Chief Erik Blake said. “Even in a small town, there is still almost 50 miles of town-owned road. That’s not including private developments.”

He said that even when people do post street numbers, often they are very difficult for first responders to see from the street. He said a number carved into a granite post or boulder is nearly invisible in a snowstorm, or in the dark.

“A lot of people number their house with brass lettering, then it fades and matches the shingles,” Mr. Rose said. “You can’t see it at all. It should be reflective lettering.”

Sometimes, dispatchers are able to give first responders very precise directions to a house. The reverse 9-1-1 system gives dispatchers an exact address, and pinpoints the location on a map. But that system is far from foolproof. It only works with land lines, not mobile phones. Police say when the reverse 9-1-1 system was implemented, some homeowners refused to change their house number as required, so the number dispatchers relay to first responders may not match the number on the house.

Police, fire and ambulance crews cannot always rely on the person making the emergency call to guide them, either, or meet them at the location.

“People are panicked, or it’s a child, or it’s a renter,” Mr. Rose said. “They can’t give you good directions.”

In the case of the cardiac arrest, the person called 9-1-1, and then began life-saving procedures. “She couldn’t stop and come down the driveway to flag us down,” Mr. Rose said.

Law of big numbers

A state law requires all property owners to clearly mark their houses with numbers visible from the street. Oak Bluffs has a similar town ordinance.

The town bylaw requires a street number posted on every building, facing the street on which the address is listed, and clearly visible from the street. The numbers should be no less than four inches and not more than 10 inches high. If the building is not visible from the street, at the end of a long driveway, for example, the bylaw requires the number posted near the road.