Giving directions on the Navajo Nation often goes something like this:
“Drive two miles north of the chapter house. When you come to a windmill, take the middle road, then go for half a mile, and it’s on the right after a big tree.”
This scenario is, at once, both humorous and hazardous. Residents of this sprawling, rural reservation sometimes have difficulty scheduling deliveries, applying for driver’s licenses and getting approved for loans.
Much of this 27,000-square-mile land mass is absent of street addresses, and the more isolated residents often live on networks of unnamed dirt roads – landscapes they grew up with but that can be impossible for outsiders to navigate. The topography affords residents the opportunity to live in solitude, far from the intrusions of modern life, but this lifestyle also comes with a steep price.
Without street addresses or GIS coordinates, emergency personnel function in the dark, a reality that can add minutes or even hours to response times.
But this is starting to change as communities work to put residents on the map and post red and white numbers on homes. Now, hundreds of people are enjoying the unprecedented luxuries that come with having street addresses.
“They can use their addresses to apply for bank loans, auto loans, update their driver’s licenses, register to vote,” said Rachelle Silver-Tagaban, a rural addressing technician for the Navajo Nation Addressing Authority, the entity tasked with overseeing the initiative in all 110 chapters. Although it is yielding unexpected benefits for residents, its purpose is singular, Silver-Tagaban said.
“This is all leading up to better public safety,” she said. “Emergency responders can be sent to the place where the call is coming from, quickly, instead of the confusion, instead of going back and forth on the road.”
The addressing authority, headquartered in the Nation’s Window Rock, Arizona, capital and assisted by AmeriCorps volunteers, supervises the initiative, but individual chapters bear the responsibility of gathering data, assigning house numbers and naming streets.
Chapter officials and community volunteers go door-to-door compiling basic information from residents: names, landlines, mailing addresses, nearest roads and descriptions of buildings and properties. The data, which is not made public, is entered into mapping software, which assigns GIS coordinates that allow emergency responders to pinpoint exact locations. Maps are shared with city, state and county dispatch services, ensuring all emergency responders are routed directly to callers.
The fun part of the initiative comes when road signs go up and numbers start appearing on homes, said Rosie Frazier-Frank, vice president for the Gadii’ahi-To’koi Chapter in northwestern New Mexico. Along with the neighboring Beclabito Chapter, Gadii-ahi-To’koi is leading the Nation with the addressing initiative.
Frazier-Frank has spent the last four years working on it, and more than 200 homes now have addresses.
“A lot of people are very happy to get them,” she said. “We live in a remote area and when someone calls the police or ambulance, they have the hardest time finding the residence. Sometimes they have to go from house to house to ask.”
Along with street addresses, residents are also getting training, Frazier-Frank said.
“We’re giving them help to use their addresses,” she said. “A lot of people think addresses are only for cities. They have never had them and they don’t really know what to do with them.”
In Beclabito, 240 homes have received addresses, Chapter Manager Melissa Kelly said. Residents have already experienced the life-saving results of the initiative, she said, but they’re also reaping other benefits of being on the grid.
“They’re using this to get services at their homes,” she said. “Businesses always want physical addresses, so this gives people validation and cuts out complications. People are figuring out that they can even use this for pizza delivery.”