Skip to main content

The Critical Role of Detailed Addresses in Emergency Responses

Enhancing emergency response times through comprehensive and updated mapping data is vital, as every second can be crucial during an emergency. Current mapping inadequacies, especially regarding private roads and complex property layouts, can significantly delay first responders. By addressing these challenges and exploring actionable solutions, we aim to improve mapping accuracy, facilitating quicker and more efficient emergency services.

A stylized monochromatic map with a layout of streets and blocks. At the top right corner, there's a red pin indicating a reported emergency location. Towards the lower left area of the map, a black star marks the actual emergency site, showing a significant distance from the red pin's placement.

Figure 1 Example map showing difference between where a flag is placed vs where the emergency actually is

Police were responding to a high priority incident call. Their computer-aided dispatch system placed a flag on the map for the incident’s address to demonstrate where they needed to go. They rushed to the flag, but when they arrived, there was no emergency to be found. “Dispatch, can you confirm the address, we aren’t seeing anything here; we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.” The address was correct; the problem was where the flag was placed. In this instance, the flag (red marker in image to the right) was put at the entrance of the large parcel of land full of private roads and multiple units, including the unit where the emergency was happening. Because the private roads and unit numbers were not part of the mapping data, the police did not have the details they needed to route themselves to the incident (black star marker). It took the police several minutes to figure out where exactly the unit in question was, not to mention some of the roads were connected while others were cul-de-sacs, and numbering was not consistent. The time delay to find the exact location could entirely change the outcome of an emergency. 

This incident illustrates a common yet critical challenge: the need for accurate and comprehensive mapping data to ensure timely emergency response. 

The Challenge of Inadequate Mapping 

When it comes to emergencies, time is always of the essence. Arriving on scene quickly, can mean the difference between life-or-death. So how can we be sure there is minimal chance of delay in arriving at an emergency? Make sure responders have access to complete and up to date mapping. This includes addressing all the roadways and details on large parcels of land like school or business campuses, large condominium or townhouse complexes, mobile home parks, and shopping malls, to name a few. 

Imagine your nephew Colin attends the local college. One night, he and his friends are walking across campus. He trips and falls, hitting his head on a large rock sculpture, knocking him unconscious and bleeding badly. Suddenly, his breathing becomes erratic. His friends call 9-1-1. One of the first questions they are asked is the location of the emergency. They explain they are about 20 metres from the campus library. They are told help is on the way and are walked through instructions to help Colin. Every moment feels agonizingly slow as they wait for help to arrive. They can hear sirens, but there isn’t anyone arriving. The dispatcher asks them to confirm their exact location. The crews are close, but they are having difficulties trying to navigate the campus roads. When you realize that the graphic below is what responders see on their map, compared to what actually exists in real life or in commercial mapping solutions, you can then see where the difficulties begin. The library is located on a private roadway within the campus, yet the responding ambulance does not have access to those details. They only have details on the primary campus access on the municipality’s local road. And once again, the flag for the college address is at the entrance of the property rather than where the emergency is taking place.

Two adjacent segments of a detailed map displayed side by side. On the left, a grayscale street map shows a black star marking an actual emergency site on 'Ashland St.' near several nondescript buildings. On the right, a more colorful campus map highlights various labeled facilities such as 'Jennings Library' and 'Mother Joseph Residence Hall,' with a red pin on 'Bloomfield Ave.' indicating a reported emergency location, some distance away from the actual site marked on the left.

Figure 2 Flag placement and importance of labels to help identify where emergency is happening 

Oftentimes, on large tracts of land, emergency responders receive limited information as the private roadways and building labels are not part of the local municipal data. It can make arrival at the main municipal street address easy enough but complicates things when there are multiple structures and sub-addresses within a site. In some cases, choosing the route to get to a patient can be difficult, often leading to possible blocked roadways or dead ends, and the need to circle back and try a different route. A better situation, however, would be to have private roads and addresses collected and made part of the authoritative of municipal dataset. This will help responders and can cut down the navigation time.  

Real-World Implications and Consequences 

Sometimes private roadways start to be used as local knowledge addresses yet aren’t part of the dataset. For example, if a large complex has multiple cul-de-sacs along the main roadway, each with a different name. It can make it easier to find a particular unit, but sometimes this gets muddled into the use of the address. Imagine1700 Bear Hill Estates Road unit 62. Now if the roadway that 62 falls in has been given a name such as Muskrat Lane and occupants begin to refer to their address as 62 Muskrat Lane, this will be problematic if they try and provide this address in an emergency since this roadway on private lands may not be in the data used by 9-1-1. Furthermore, if these internal roadway names aren’t regulated in some way, there is risk that these could be duplicated to other road names in the community creating more confusion.

A wide, monochrome map showing part of a residential area with the street names 'Orchid Lane,' 'Deer Place,' 'Muskrat Lane,' and 'Bear Hills Road.' House icons are scattered throughout to denote homes. On 'Bear Hills Road,' two green circular markers labeled '21-1700 Bear Hills Road' and '61-1700 Bear Hills Road' are present, with a red star closer to the right edge of the map, indicating an emergency location on 'Bear Hills Road.

Figure 3 When private roadways are named by the property owner but not included in the authoritative data, it can cause confusion and delays for responders 

Solutions for Enhanced Emergency Response 

At the street level, addressing is often regulated and there are requirements for signage that is clearly visible and readable. Furthermore, the numbering of addresses follows predictable patterns typically ascending or descending in the same direction on each road. While signs on private property may not be subject to the same scrutiny of surrounding municipal roads this does not have to be the case. Sometimes property owners choose to put up signs in fancy typefaces which are difficult to read and possibly not reflective at night either with confusing numbering schemas. Sometimes numbering follows the pattern of development. This could mean that numbering doesn’t always continue sequentially and finding specific units is not intuitive. Following a numbering schema when suddenly the numbering changes makes it difficult to try and find a particular unit. Some complexes include cul-de-sacs and through roads, and this can cause further challenges in arriving on scene at an emergency. Depending on the kind of emergency, the response vehicles are left struggling to navigate tight corners, dead-ends, and unpredictable numbering; all things that can create time delays in arrival.  

Examples like these are more common than you think stretching across different properties. Capturing these roadways and sub-addresses is paramount in assisting ambulance, fire, and police personnel.  

Is your area collecting this kind of information today? Is it being shared with responders? Do you have any kind of policies in place requiring these property owners to provide this information? Are any of these property owners naming their internal roadways? Are there any rules or guidelines for numbering schemas? 

Although a local authority may not need this information internally (e.g., for taxation, snow clearing or garbage removal), this information is very important to first responders. Any mapping information that can help ensure a swift arrival at an emergency is not just appreciated but is critically needed. Responders want routing information that is up to date, accurate, and complete, so that response isn’t left to guessing games like Marco Polo (no, really, it happens, like when a unit resorts to turning sirens on and off to determine if the sound is getting closer or farther from the caller). Emergencies are not the time to be playing games with location.

Community Action: Steps Forward 

There are things you can do today:  

  • Inventory what areas are missing from your data today. Some common types to consider include: 
    • school campuses
    • business parks 
    • strata properties (e.g., condominiums and townhouse complexes) 
    • trailer parks
    • shopping areas  
  • Talk with responders to understand areas that might be problematic for them today.  
  • Create a plan of what you want to tackle first. Trailer parks and condos are a good starting point as there are many citizens living in units each with their own entrance.  
  • Consider policy around private roads and addresses. Providing guidance can assist in helping property owners to number things in a way that makes sense to responders.  

Private roads and addresses may not be required by your organization, but if a tragedy happens that might have been prevented with better location information, wouldn’t you want to know you did everything you could to give citizens the best chance of help arriving quickly? What if it was your mom or uncle calling for help?

To learn more about how you can enhance the accuracy and management of addresses within your organization, explore Esri Canada's Address Manager.

About the Author

Sharon Koch is a Senior Consultant at Esri Canada, specializing in next-generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) and public safety project implementations. She previously worked at Calgary 9-1-1 in various roles, notably supporting the organization’s transition to an IP phone system and NG9-1-1. Sharon is involved with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s Emergency Services Working Group and participates in a variety of Task Identification Forms (TIFs), where she contributes to industry discussions, reporting and documentation. She has a master’s degree in Professional Communication and recently earned the Emergency Number Professional (ENP) designation through the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).

Profile Photo of Sharon Koch