The house at 711 Weld St. in Dixfield is, according to an online map, 4.5 miles from the town center in Dixfield and 2.5 miles from the center of Carthage.

Or so the map says.

It depends on how much technology is trusted to provide precise location information. If that map is accurate, emergency responders will have the detailed knowledge they need to fight a fire, find an accident, or save a life. If it’s off, or dead wrong, then emergencies can turn into tragedies.

Number 711 Weld Street is a real-life example of the latter. The chalet-style house there burned on Sunday, after firefighters were delayed 20 minutes by a bizarre series of events. Calls were routed to the wrong county. It took three cell phone callers to finally identify where the fire was.

This is bizarre because cellular technology available in Maine is supposed to prevent this confusion from happening. Since 2005, the state’s communication centers and wireless companies have been fully compliant with federal regulations to provide a latitude and longitude on cellular 911 calls.

So, when a cell phone caller dials 911, their location should be available to dispatchers, who can then notify the appropriate authorities. This technology — called Phase II, in 911 parlance — is reportedly accurate between 50 and 300 meters of the cell phone.

It appears this technology failed, in this case. The first cellular call was not traceable and the second was only tracked to its tower-of-record in Peru, far from the fire scene. Only when the home’s owner contacted dispatch via cell phone, with the exact address, was the mystery solved.

Firefighters blame this runaround for costing them valuable time to stop the blaze. It’s a subjective analysis — the house could have been doomed, anyway — but the aggravation is justified. A technological solution has been instituted to avoid this very scenario.

Why, then, did it happen?

This is a question for state and local dispatch officials to ask. Complaints about locating emergency scenes are not new (almost every emergency responder in every town has one) and the complaints lodged at the state dispatch in Augusta by police has made such frustrations public.

At the very least, what happened in Dixfield should raise concerns about the reliability of the technology that’s supposed to make finding emergency scenes easier. The current system now apparently has glitches, flaws, bugs or simply doesn’t work as advertised.

Technical failings which may have caused the 20-minute delay should be identified and remedied, before the next one isn’t the difference between Carthage or Dixfield, but perhaps life and death.


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