DENHAM SPRINGS, Fla. -- Anyone who has searched for an unfamiliar building on a dark street where few addresses are displayed has experienced a sampling of the frustration emergency personnel often face at times when seconds count.
"You're frantic because you know that if you don't get there soon enough that the person is not likely to survive," said Denham Springs, Fla., Police Chief Jeff Wesley, who served as an emergency medical technician before becoming a police officer.
"Then you get there and the family is angry because it took you so long," he said. "They don't realize it was because they didn't post their street numbers properly."
Those numbers are important to police and firefighters. All emergency responders sometimes have to knock on two or three doors before they find the right house, he said.
Livingston Parish has a large problem with lack of easily visible street numbers, according to several officials. A parish ordinance requires the posting of four-inch tall numbers on houses, but officials said that is widely ignored and not the best system if homeowners choose numbers to blend with their houses.
The numbers need to be of a color that contrasts with the house and are best if they are lighted or reflective, said Mitch Jacobs, fire prevention officer for the Denham Springs Fire Department.
"Five out of 10 calls" get delayed to some degree by the lack of visibility of addresses, said Jason Ard, chief of operations for the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office.
That delay can be as minor as emergency personnel having to slow down or stop several times to read small or nonreflective numbers on mailboxes. Emergency responders say the delay can be longer when they cannot find house numbers at all.
The frustration of law enforcement officials, firefighters and other emergency responders can be heard regularly on scanners for police and other emergency agencies in the parish.
"It's a big problem," said Brian Fairburn, head of the parish's Office of Emergency Preparedness.
Minutes and seconds often count in medical calls, especially in heart attacks, he said.
Likewise, fires have a better chance of being fought successfully if firefighters can get to a situation before a blaze breaks through the roof or reaches a point where it's even visible from the outside, Fairburn said.
A 911 call can provide the center with an address, which authorities can use to get close to the residence. They still may not be able to find it immediately if street numbers are not easily visible, said Ronnie Cotton, director of the Livingston Parish 911 Center.
That loss of time can translate to the loss of property or even the life of a loved one, Cotton said.
If the caller cannot go outside to flag down the emergency vehicle or if the call is being made by a child or someone not familiar with the area, dangerous delays can occur from poor address displays, he said.
Some of the most difficult situations come in rural parts of the parish where a group of mailboxes are placed next to each other, Cotton said.
Lack of addresses on the houses can mean several extra minutes in getting to the right home, he said.
Many people do not have their street numbers on their mailboxes, only have the numbers on one side of the boxes, or have numbers that are too small to be read from a passing vehicle, Cotton said.
Some mailboxes only have the numbers handwritten so that they are only visible to the mail carrier who stops at the box, officials complain.
The lack of address numbers problem is not just a rural one and also applies to businesses, Jacobs said.
"When we run across seven or eight buildings in a row without out an address, it slows us down," the fire official said. "Then have to turn that fire truck around on the highway. That's like trying to turn around a tank."
One whole shopping center on Range Avenue in Denham Springs does not have addresses displayed, he said.
Jacobs said his office is getting serious about enforcing a regulation that requires all commercial buildings to have six-inch tall address numbers visible that are visible from the street.
Painting numbers on the curb is also a good idea, he said.Large reflective numbers at the edge of the driveway work well, several officials said.