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State’s 911 emergency system failing to locate every New Mexican. Rural homes missing from maps.

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State’s 911 emergency system failing to locate every New Mexican. Rural homes missing from maps.

Dec 06, 2022 | 7:05 am ET
By Shaun Griswold
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State’s 911 emergency system failing to locate every New Mexican, rural homes missing from maps
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The smoke from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire is visible from a nearby propane station in Mora, N.M. on June 13, 2022. (Photo by Bright Quashie for Source NM)

When most New Mexicans call 911, operators are able to locate the emergency through the standard geographic information services that map out addresses.

Now imagine you’re one of the thousands of people who are harder to locate because rural life sometimes means your home, mail and utility addresses point to three different locations.

Emergency responders are sometimes unable to locate where they need to respond in New Mexico. The state updated the 911 system from the old GIS tracking to a new model that is internet-based, and it’s showing the gaps.

“Why does Domino’s and Uber know exactly where I am, but 911, not as well?” Stephen Weinkauf asked lawmakers during a Rural Economic Opportunities Task Force meeting at the end of last month.

Weinkauf works with the state Department of Finance as a bureau chief with local governments transitioning to the new 911 digital systems, called NextGen 911. New Mexico is one of 35 states to adopt a plan to modernize 911 systems.

The state has 42 public safety access points where emergency calls are routed to the proper agency, Weinkauf said.

Part of changing things up is collecting data to help build the new system. The info can also show where the state needs to direct resources during the project. Results are showing New Mexico still has a ways to go to get to rural households experiencing emergencies.

New Mexico has at least 36,000 rural addresses and 12,000 urban addresses that are not located properly, meaning a person calling from those places with an emergency might not be found in time to avert disaster or save a life because the system doesn’t know exactly where they are. In total, more than 3% of addresses in rural areas are out of compliance and more than 4.7% of roads in rural areas are incorrect in the system.

“Most GIS address and address data sets in New Mexico do contain errors that hinder emergency response and also failed to meet Next Generation data quality standards,” Weinkauf told lawmakers.

The issue led to some homes in Mora County going up in flames during the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire in spring 2022.

“Many homes incurred preventable damage because fire mitigation efforts could not verify their addresses,” according to a report filed by the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration.

And the rebuild from the fire is being affected by this flailing infrastructure, leading to more than 10% of insurance claims in Mora County being denied because addresses cannot be verified, according to state data.

“It was very illuminating when we had a conversation with USAA insurance company, who came to us at the 911 program asking, ‘Do we have any additional address points or additional address data within the communities affected by the fires?’” Weinkauf said.

Lawmakers showed support to fix the issues, even sharing their own personal experiences with mislocated rural addresses.

Rep. Gail Armstrong (R-Magdalena) said the issue not only comes up in emergency response, but in how people build on property or register to vote.

“There’s so many people that have been in the community for generations that don’t really have an address,” she said. “I made up my address the first time I registered to vote because I didn’t have a physical address. I was nine miles west on Route 10. Where’s that? That could be anywhere.”

Like many in rural New Mexico, Armstrong said she has a P.O. Box, a physical address and another that can be used for utilities.

“So in our county, you can have a P.O. Box to register to vote, but you can’t have a P.O. Box to get your driver’s license, but I have a completely different address for where I actually live,” she said.

Weinkauf said he’s experienced similar scenarios working in the field. When he was in Las Vegas, N.M., assisting with the fire response, he said he talked with some residents who use multiple addresses to meet requirements for utilities or mail.

“There should not be three different things that should be one address,” he said. “It also creates this mistrust between the citizen calling 911 reporting an address, and they’re not getting a match on the other side.”

Solutions require more money. The Legislature passed a bill to modernize 911 systems in 2019 and have so far appropriated more than $12.4 million for the project. $600,000 has gone to mapping and validating correct addresses for first responders.

There is also a call for lawmakers to create guidelines to make addresses uniform in rural and urban areas. This is something that could be done in conjunction with the 911 system and other state agencies responsible for projects in rural New Mexico, Armstrong said.

“I would be willing to help you in any way, shape or form. You should ask for funding,” Armstrong said to Weinkauf while mentioning the surplus state lawmakers have available to spend next year. “Ask us for funding.”