911 address campaign in Presidio latest in push to streamline county’s emergency dispatch system

PRESIDIO — At a Presidio City Council meeting on June 27, Marisa Quintanilla, regional services director for the Rio Grande Council of Governments (RIOCOG), attended virtually to give a presentation on updates to Presidio’s 911 addressing system. The push to update 911 addresses in Presidio is the latest in a longer-term project to make the county’s emergency dispatch system more accurate and efficient. 

Quintanilla told city officials that her organization would be rolling out a door hanger campaign in the coming weeks to educate Presidians on the new 911 addressing system and inviting them to help map the city. “We have been working hard and fast to make sure that all residents complete this to have an accurate 911 address,” she explained. 

A 911 address is the physical address of a structure. In this context, it’s the address communicated between dispatch and first responders so that help can arrive quickly and efficiently to the scene of an accident or crime. For Big Bend residents, this is a separate address from their mailing address, which is connected to a particular post office. 

The push to update 911 addresses in Presidio has been a multi-year project spanning back to 2020. Residents have had trouble for years accessing emergency services and at-home shipments because of the confusion over which house is which. Because the city doesn’t have a formal block numbering system, first responders unfamiliar with the area have a difficult time even guessing what part of town they should be headed to. 

As the Big Bend area’s 911/GIS Coordinator for the RIOCOG, Tom Griffith feels that the problem requires a few more steps beyond just asking individual residents to update their addresses. “One of the biggest problems is they don’t have street signs,” he explained. “There’s nothing there to help the first responders.” 

Presidio County Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Mitschke explained that the issue of street signs has historically been a problem in Marfa as well. “In Marfa, like in Presidio, we don’t always have street signs. It makes things difficult for people,” he said. 

Monica Sanchez, who helms the county’s emergency dispatch service through the Presidio County Jail, says that, despite the push to educate people on the updated service, residents don’t always give accurate 911 addresses. “When they call, we of course ask them for addresses just to confirm what we’ve got on our site,” she explained. “In some cases it’s not the exact address due to the fact that the streets have been changed so many times or they were told it was this address or they’ve lived there for so long and it always had been that address.” 

Mitschke also noticed that during the push to update Marfa’s 911 addresses, his own address shifted down the street by a few numbers. Ultimately, the goal of the campaign is to make addresses more accurate. “The location is more tied to a GPS coordinate than it is to a physical address,” he explained. 

At the Presidio City Council meeting back in June, Quintanilla explained that Presidio would get the added benefit of going through the address-updating process with the help of the RIOCOG’s new software vendor, Geocomm. Geocomm is tied to Google Maps, so in addition to helping first responders navigate to a scene, it can also provide a preview of the location if an image is available on Google Street View. “This will also aid the first responders by knowing what the structure looks like, what’s in front of it, what vehicles are outside and so forth,” Quintanilla said.

Councilmember Joe Andy Mendoza had some reservations about the new service. “I’m a little bit concerned because when you put my house on Google Maps, it doesn’t actually show my house and street,” he said. The distinctive Google Street View car laden with recording gear  last visited Presidio in 2008, so new construction in the past 15 years isn’t always reflected on the site. “The program sounds great, it’s just that most of the streets in our city have not been updated.”

Quintanilla gave a tutorial to the folks gathered in the Presidio Activities Center on how to dispute the accuracy of a Google Street View result. If a user plugs in an address, the gray box in the top left corner of the screen has a drop-down menu inviting users to “report a problem.” She speculated that if enough people from Presidio reported their addresses, it could encourage Google to revisit the area and update their data. “Obviously, they have a lot of driving to do,” she said.