Public Safety Officials: Even With GPS, House Numbers Remain Important

By: Tim Wood

A Chatham bylaw requires that clearly visible street numbers be posted on every building. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – With GPS mapping included with almost every smartphone and in most new cars, is there really a need anymore to post street address numbers on buildings?

The answer, say public safety officials, is an emphatic yes.

“GPS certainly gets us close,” said Fire Chief Peter Connick, but it can also leave fire and rescue personnel searching for the right address. And when the situation is an emergency, especially if it's medical in nature, “sometimes seconds count,” Connick said.

That's why a town bylaw that requires that street numbers be posted on buildings and that they be clearly visible from the street. Second 240-4 of the town's general bylaws reads, “Every building on a public or private way within the town shall be provided with a clear and legible street number placed in such a manner as to be clearly visible from such ways.”

The bylaw also requires that any new building have a street number posted on it before an occupancy permit is issued. That's strictly enforced, according to the building department. And anytime an inspection is done for an addition or other major work on a building, inspectors check to make there's a clearly visible street number posted. Fire inspectors also check when they do inspections, Connick said, although it's up to the building commissioner to enforce the bylaw.

The bylaw applies to all buildings – residential, commercial, multi-family, even municipal. Technically, bylaw violators can be fined – but that rarely happens. Usually a warning results in compliance.

When a call comes in to the fire department, the dispatcher relies on a mapping system to direct rescuers and firefighter to the address where the call originated. They also note where the nearest fire hydrants are. Rescue vehicles also have online maps in them, but Connick noted that they rely on cell phone service, which can be spotty in some areas of town, so having the dispatcher providing directions is still important.

Still, there are times rescuers aren't sure which house the call came from, but can sometimes narrow that down by the street number. Connick said most street numbers in town are actually the number of feet along the road from the nearest intersection, usually with an added zero. So 20 Fake Road would in all likelihood be 200 feet from the nearest major intersection. And it would be on right side of the road. All even numbers are on the right, odd numbers on the left. That also helps determine the best direction to approach a building in terms of where hydrants are located, Connick said.

Long driveways can also pose a problem. Address numbers should be posted at the street end of a long driveway, and Connick said there should also still be a number on the building. Numbers on mailboxes can help, but are not always reliable and exact, especially if several are grouped together.

When the town instituted a 911 emergency system some years ago, there was a push to ensure that all buildings had street numbers on them, said Deputy Police Chief Michael Anderson. But that was before cell phones were ubiquitous; today, many homes no longer have land lines but rely only on cell phones. Calls from cell phones to 911 are answered at the Framingham State Police barracks and relayed to either police or fire departments. The next generation 911 technology, he said, will incorporate GPS and text messaging; the hardware is in place, but Anderson said software has not yet be installed.

With the help of the state police, the local department can also use GPS to locate cell phones, if, for instance, the caller is not sure of their location, or if the call comes from the bike path or a remote beach.

“We'll still find you,” no matter where the call comes from, Anderson said. Technology has meant that there are fewer calls directed to the wrong house number, he added.

“It's almost none now,” he said.