Down East 2013 ©
By Rob Sneddon
Consider the situation in which a citizen discovers his neighbor’s house on fire. He may very systematically look up the number for the fire department and give very precise information as to the location. Take the same person suddenly finding his own home on fire; he panics.
— report from the State of Maine 911 Study Commission, March 1987
In Maine, as everywhere else, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But at least in Maine the road is clearly marked. It is mapped and plotted with impeccable logic, numbered end to end at precise fifty-foot intervals. It is, in other words, in full compliance with the standards of Enhanced 911, the system that Maine has spent twenty-five years and tens of millions of dollars to put in place statewide.
So, should you live at the far end of the road, down hell way, and should a rogue gust send a shower of embers onto your roof and set it ablaze, don’t despair. Just call 911. Even if you’re in such a state of spluttering panic that the dispatcher can’t decipher your desperate plea, the system will instantly capture your address. And, thanks to this cutting-edge technology, the fire trucks will come to your rescue as fast as humanly possible.
Just as long as you call on a landline and not a cell phone.
OK — so that’s a little snarky and unfair. People shouldn’t be mocked for trying to do the right thing. And from the outset, the 911 concept has been a quixotic exercise in trying to do the rightest thing of all: save lives.
Maine was an early adopter. In 1968, when basic 911 was introduced, Camden was one of the first towns in the U.S. to use it. Within twenty years, fourteen other Maine communities had local 911 service. But geographic boundaries weren’t always in sync with telephone exchanges. That sometimes created confusion, including one tragic episode in which emergency crews were delayed in responding to a fatal fire in Topsham.
Enhanced 911 seemed like a perfect solution. It offered the promise of a fully integrated emergency response network. Further, every 911 call from anywhere in the state would automatically be routed to the appropriate jurisdiction — called a Public Safety Answering Point, or PSAP — and the caller’s address would instantly appear on a screen.
Well, who wouldn’t want a system like that? Certainly not the civic-mind citizens of Maine. So on November 8, 1988, Mainers approved H.P. 1911/L.D. 2608, An Act to Establish an Enhanced 911 System. The bill authorized the state to spend $3.2 million to get the system up and running.
The target date for completion was July 1, 1993.
We are proud to announce that 100 percent of Maine’s population now has [E911] service. The last town, Lincoln, was activated July 8, 2008.
—from the home page of the Maine Emergency Services Communications Bureau Web site
So what took so long? The first hint of trouble is buried deep in another feasibility report, which identified ten potential problems with E911. Ninth on the list, after such concerns as how to make the system work on a party line, was an understatement of breathtaking scope: “There are many towns in Maine in which the houses and businesses have no street addresses. Thus, the development of the automatic location identification database will be a problem in those areas.”
For the E911 system to work as designed, each phone had to be linked to a fixed address. But in Maine, more than half the fixed addresses turned out to be broken.
Part of the problem was all the unnamed private roads throughout the state. Say E911 identified an address on Route 1 as a call’s point of origin. But what if the call actually came from a house several hundred yards off Route 1, along a dirt driveway dotted with several other houses? An emergency crew could have trouble figuring out which house was which, or miss the driveway entirely.
The solution? Any private drive with more than one house had to have its own name, clearly posted, and each house had to have a separate number.
Another hurdle: Too many roads had similar names, which could create confusion in relaying the address from the PSAP to the appropriate emergency response team. If, for instance, a town had not only a Road to Hell but also a Highway to Hell, a Business Route to Hell, and a Hades Terrace — well, you can see the problem.
The solution: Rename as many roads as necessary to eliminate duplication or overlap. And while you’re at it, make sure all the numbers are in a consistent, logical order — no fractions or letters allowed — with unambiguous transitions from town to town.
These sweeping changes affected every community in the state. By approving E911, Mainers triggered a series of unintended consequences — including the gestation of a new bureaucracy. In 1994 the Maine Department of Public Safety created a dedicated agency, the Emergency Services Communications Bureau (ESCB), to oversee implementation of the E911 mandate. But the mandate really wasn’t a mandate because the state had no authority to enforce the standards that E911 required. Maine law clearly granted each community the right to name its public ways in any way it chose.
Viewed in this context, the wonder is not that it took twenty years to make statewide E911 a reality — it’s that it happened at all. To get Maine’s diverse collection of cities, towns, and unorganized territories to agree on a strict code of addressing conventions demanded a combination of delicate diplomacy and passive-aggressive pressure. To quote the ninety-six-page manual that the ESCB distributed to each town: “Creating physical addresses is not mandated by the E911 system. It is, however, a responsible act of local government.”
And that appears to be the spirit with which most local governments approached the task. “I’m a great believer that everybody should do something for the town that they live in,” says Bill Kautzmann, an addressing officer in Boothbay.
Having served for years on a volunteer fire department in his native New Jersey, Kautzmann saw the value of the E911 addressing program. “Boothbay had about thirty named roads when we started,” he says. “There are almost three hundred today.”
The process was not without its glitches. “We made a few blunders in the beginning,” Kautzmann says. “We let people use their last name as the road name, and that didn’t work out too good if they moved or died. The other people on the street would want to change the name again, and they didn’t realize how much work there was — notifying utilities and so forth.”
When two roads had similar names, says Kautzmann, “the one with the least number of houses on it had to change the name.”
In most cases, says Kautzmann, the people of Boothbay supported the effort, or at least cooperated with it. But not always. “One of the residents had two building lots on a driveway,” Kautzmann says. “And the state said that any driveway with two or more houses on it had to have a road name. So [the owner] submitted an Irish name. Now, I don’t know any Irish. But my stockbroker had dual citizenship with [the U.S. and] Ireland. She saw the paperwork on the table, and she said, ‘You know what that name means? It means ‘Kiss my ass.’’”
Well, isn’t that Maine activism in miniature? The state traditionally has one of the highest percentages of voter turnout in the country — and a good percentage of that percentage wants to vote out the people that they voted in the last time.
Technological progress has merely
provided us with more efficient
means for going backwards.
So, was the large-scale cooperative effort between the state and local governments that enabled E911 laudable or laughable? Both, actually. Because the system that resulted has great potential — but in its present form it’s already out of date. Last year sixty-five percent of all 911 calls in Maine came via cell phone. And the automatic-location identification database — the driving force behind the statewide addressing program — is useless for those calls. (E911 can merely estimate the location of a cell phone, with varying accuracy.)
In other words, sixty-five percent of the time, an E911 call in Maine in 2013 works pretty much the same way that a basic 911 call in Maine worked in 1988: You have to tell the dispatcher where the emergency is.
Which is not to say that E911 has been a failure. For one thing, just about every property in Maine now has an address and each address is unique. That has undoubtedly lessened the chances for confusion in an emergency response, even if the address has to be relayed verbally. And if the state has lost a little of its quaint charm in the process, most Mainers regard the upgrade in public safety as a worthwhile tradeoff. “Can’t get there from here” isn’t such a funny line when you’re rushing to a camp where a propane tank just exploded.
Besides, the 911 story isn’t over. It’s just moving to a new chapter, with a new name: NG911 — for Next Generation 911. The goals include not only improved automatic-location identification software for cell phone calls, but also capability for texts, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), video, and so forth.
Yes, it will require more money. The ESCB budget has increased from $8.4 million in 2012 to $12.1 million in 2013 to cover the cost of implementing NG911. And the target date for completion remains . . . fuzzy. (The FCC has asked the country’s major wireless carriers to enable text-to-911 service by May 15, 2014, but implementing the service will probably take longer.)
But what’s the alternative? Progress happens. And stopping now would be as shortsighted as — well, as building an E911 network predicated on an everlasting system of landlines. When new telecommunications technologies come along, at least Maine will already have the infrastructure in place to implement them. “That puts us in an enviable position compared to other states,” says ESCB director Maria Jacques. “Because they don’t have the authority to build a statewide IP network to handle emergency calls.”
Maine does. Maine has also had twenty-five years to work the bugs out.
So be patient. Rapid response doesn’t happen overnight.