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911 address changes causing frustration

| Thursday, April 6, 2006

There was no fire, no heart attack, no shooting, but the call was no prank.

"911, do you have an emergency?" the dispatcher answered.

Jerry Feret, 68, who's had four addresses in as many months, explained he just wanted to know if the 911 center could find his Hempfield Township home of almost 40 years. Anymore, he's not even sure where it's located.

"I did it, but I don't know if it makes me feel better," Feret said.

Feret is one of thousands of Westmoreland County residents whose addresses were switched to more efficiently dispatch police, fire and ambulance crews.

In December, his rural route turned into "Mt. Pleasant Road." Since then, he's received mail addressed to house numbers 87, 1380 and 1384. He missed a cable bill and threatened to switch to satellite TV to avoid a late charge. He got two garbage collection bills, both in his name, listing two different addresses.

But he worries more about emergency crews missing the house.

The dispatcher pulled up Feret's address on a computerized map, saying it was located near a number of streets, such as Sunny Drive, that Feret never had heard of. He took walks to study street signs and reassure himself that everything would be all right.

"You want to have people find you," he said.

Despite good intentions

In 1998, L. Robert Kimball & Associates, of Ebensburg, was hired to canvass the county's 1,032 square miles for unnamed streets, rural-delivery routes and duplicated road names. Each was a threat to emergency response, said Dan Stevens, the county readdressing coordinator. The 911 surcharge in telephone bills paid for the $1.8 million program.

Stevens expects to be done by the end of the year. He admits to flaws in the process involving local municipalities, post offices and the county.

"No matter what happens, there are humans involved," Stevens said. "We make mistakes. We try to go through enough checks and balances."

"I think Dan's worked hard at it," county Commissioner Chairman Tom Balya said. "He's been the lightning rod often for people who have been upset, but in the long run, he's trying to do what's right."

In spite of good intentions, the program's fallout has irked many.

Hempfield Township Manager Rob Ritson said his staff logged calls itemizing almost 1,000 problems with 11,000 address changes in the township.

Many residences, especially in Feret's area, were skipped during an initial canvas, Ritson said.

When Sam Calo, 47, moved from Laughlintown to Ligonier in 2002, his moving man asked if the truck was headed for Ramsey Street in the borough or Ramsey Road in the surrounding township. Calo, who has muscular dystrophy, wondered if ambulance drivers would have the same question.

He told the moving company to go to 108 Ramsey St. in the borough, an address that several months later became 108 Hadley St.

Deliveries were delayed to his home accounting business because drivers couldn't find the new address. Cards and letters went back to friends marked "address unknown."

"It's just been ridiculous," Calo said. "They changed Ligonier in 2003 and here we are. It's 2006 and I still have a phone book in front of me that has an incorrect address. ... It was a great plan that was so poorly executed."

Transition trouble

In the 20 years Darlene Vukovich has been a real estate agent, she's seen nothing like it. When she leaves her Jeannette office to look at a property, it can turn into a scavenger hunt because she is unsure how old addresses relate to the new.

"No one can find anything," Vukovich said. "There needs to be a published, cross-referenced list. I'm not asking for anything that should be any secret. It's public information."

Stevens said he disagrees because the address database includes sensitive information such as unlisted phone numbers. "The information is gathered for 911 purposes," he said. "The county can't sell it. I can't distribute it."

Somehow, junk-mailers prevail.

Penn Township Commissioner Chairman Charles Horvat said he gets various bulk mailings at his home, listing an address the township has yet to make official. Junk-mailers found the address in U.S. Postal Service databases that were updated prematurely, he said.

Post offices have their own problems.

Murrysville Postmaster Pamela Abbot's district got about 800 new addresses. But some residents neglected to inform the people who send them mail, slowing down the sorting process.

Same goes for Unity Township, where more than 5,000 addresses were changed in November 2004. "We still have some folks using their old RD addresses," Emergency Management Director Pete Tenerowicz said.

One person who's been able to find people's homes: pizza delivery driver Nancy Burkholder, who drives for Fox's in Ligonier.

"A lot of people haven't changed their mail box numbers and house numbers. It's a headache for some of the new (delivery) people," she said. "For me, it's not much of a problem because I've been here for so long and I'm from this area."

Yukon Fire Chief Larry Mencer said firefighters use a cross-referenced address list to study changes made almost a year ago. Just outside the fire hall, the same number is assigned to two separate homes, but the department is trying to correct that, the chief said.

He thinks the project has reduced response time. "I think they wanted to make sure everybody's safe," Mencer said.

Written in stone

Maryann Phillips' address literally is etched in stone. A large chunk of granite along Harrison City Road in Level Green, Penn Township, says "718." That's where she lives, next door to her monument business marked by a stone pillar.

Whatever happens to her address, Phillips said, the markers stay.

"I'd have to get a crane in to get those pillars," she said. "You're not talking a few dollars here."

Harrison City Road, the local name for Route 130, is destined to drop its name to be known only as a state highway, Phillips said.

"As long as I've lived around here, it's been Harrison City Road," she said. "It will be 20, 30, 40 years until it's not Harrison City Road."

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