The road not taken

Just try telling someone how to get to Ridge Road. Five of them exist in Buncombe County — three in Enka alone.

Anyone who’s ever attempted to help a hapless tourist get from Biltmore Avenue to Merrimon Avenue, an obvious segue to jaded Ashevilleans, knows that not all our road names in these parts make sense. We’re cursed with an abundance of duplicate names; of streets that unexpectedly end and then begin again somewhere else; and streets where — at some point, for no obvious reason — the name simply morphs into something else.

And in the county, the situation is sometimes even worse: Roads have multiple names, and homes are set back in the woods or in trailer parks, bearing no house numbers.

Such difficulties can turn gravely dangerous when it comes to emergency rescues, experts say. For the most part, Buncombe County Emergency Medical Services reports that the situation is under control — and is decidedly better than it used to be. But snags still exist. “If we have instances, they are few and far between,” confirms Robbie Melton, a paramedic for 16 years. “But they do happen.”

Jeff Justice, Buncombe County EMS assistant supervisor, describes a recent debacle over different Dogwood Drives in Skyland and Arden. “A Hispanic lady was on the phone, and her child was having difficulty breathing, but she didn’t know which road she lived on,” he recalls. “We [wound] up sending out two units.”

Fire, police and ambulance services pride themselves on responding quickly, in life-saving fashion. Taxpayers demand that they do.

But what if they can’t respond promptly?

In 1975, the worst happened to Ralph Webb Israel. He suffered a heart attack and died before paramedics could locate him, says his daughter-in-law, Edith Israel. She explains that her family lives on Israel Road, just off Sluder Branch Road in Leceister. But a few miles south is another Israel Road, which angles off Foster Drive; that’s where paramedics apparently went first, in response to the Israel family’s call for help.

Ron Higgins, a transplant from Alaska, now lives on the more southerly Israel Road. He says he doesn’t want history to repeat itself. In February, he persuaded the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to change the road’s name to Remington.

City and county officials don’t want that kind of history to repeat itself, either. Driving and learning the roads is the key for EMS workers, Melton points out.

“A lot of places in the state don’t allow their units to drive around, [in order] to save gas, but we encourage that,” says EMS Training Officer Clint Gorman. Most of the emergency vehicles carry the Miller’s Guide (a street directory for the city) and the Buncombe County Atlas, but these have their limitations, Gorman says — noting that changes occur all the time.

A particularly difficult problem emerged when Interstate 240 sliced through many neighborhoods. “It split the roads, like Hazel Mill Road, and there’s a huge separation,” Gorman says. “[Hazel Mill Road] starts around south of Westwood Plaza, and the other end is way across town at Sam’s Club. The last house is 162, listed in the 911 computer for the southern half, and we only know that because the Fire Department has gone out there and marked it.”

Another key to getting emergency crews out promptly involves the 911 dispatchers — folks who take the calls. The dispatchers’ job is not always easy, since callers may be hysterical, unfamiliar with where they are, or not fluent in English.

To avoid foul-ups, dispatchers also do ride-alongs with officers and paramedics, to get training in street and road locations.

“Duplicate road names … would be a problem if we were not aware of them,” notes Ken Scarberry, an Asheville Police Department supervisor in the city’s operations center. “We think we’ve eliminated that possibility.”

APD Communications Director Nanci Farmer describes the protocol for 911 calls: “We ask the main street name; that’s critical. A lot of people don’t know where they live.” They also get the caller’s address, nearest crossroads, and, of course, the telephone number — three means of tracking the person down. “Unless it’s something like a robbery in progress, or domestic dispute, then we keep them on the phone until an officer can get there,” she says.

What about duplicated names, such as Cherry Street?

“If a person calls and [is] hysterical, and says ‘Send me an officer. I live at 10 Cherry St.’ Well, which Cherry Street? North? Central? West? Which part of town do you live in?” asks Farmer. Sometimes, dispatches are made to more than one location. “If it requires dispatching two units, so be it. Our primary responsibility is life safety,” she says.

Besides ongoing efforts to familiarize staff with problem roads, county and city officials also try to eliminate confusing street names and prevent the creation of new ones.

While the Miller’s Guide and the Buncombe County Atlas are generally good resources, critics point out that they don’t always agree on the name of the road — and sometimes, neither one uses the official spelling.

“I never use them,” confesses Jim Rhine, the city’s traffic-operations manager. When Rhine moved to Asheville three years ago, he started noticing street-name inconsistencies as he jogged along Edgewood Road in Oakley. “One mailbox would say Edgewood Road, the next would say Edgewood Street, and the third would spell Edgewood some other way,” he recalls. One of his favorite flubs is in Kenilworth, he says, where Ravena Street suddenly — for no apparent reason — turns into Dunkirk Road.

The Institute of Transportation, Research and Education — part of N.C. State University — is conducting an extensive street study in Asheville, which will include creating a data base of all existing street names. Rhine wants to use the completed data base to create a 911 guide that would eliminate street-name inconsistencies.

“Our intention is not to get into the business of map-making,” he explains, “but to make an internal guide. We also want to compile all the possible name changes and go to City Council with one big list.”

Asheville Zoning Enforcement Officer Gary McDaniel is the city’s first line of defense against street-name confusion, what with planned communities constantly springing up and the city preparing to annex new areas. “With new developments, we make sure the new street names are not already in use,” explains McDaniel.

In Buncombe County, that task falls on 911 Coordinator Carol Scarberry. “We are going to the well for street names,” she says. “It’s getting harder and harder to name a road Dogwood, Mountain View, Ridge, Azalea and Rhododendron.”

One problem that seems to be more prevalent in the county than in Asheville is roads known by several different names. “Old folks will call a road by one name, but it’s been different for a long time, and they still call it the same thing,” reveals Melton. Scarberry cites an example from Candler, where the same thoroughfare is variously called North Luther Road, Brookshire Circle and Mount Pleasant Road.

Meanwhile, in terms of emergency services, the biggest problem on county roads is the lack of posted house numbers. Scarberry has been working on creating mailbox numbers for homes on rural routes; the last remaining enclaves are off Pisgah Highway and Leicester Highway. She’s also in the process of logging every street address in the county.

But even in the areas where route numbers exist, Scarberry says a lot of people don’t have markers on their houses — especially houses out in the country, located far off the road. Some folks apparently think their mailbox is enough.

“Their mailbox may be in a cluster of mailboxes. It may help the postman, but not necessarily the EMS,” she relates, adding, “People need to ask themselves, ‘How hard am I to find — and I how hard am I to find in a hurry?‘”

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