Lack of city street signs impedes responders

Fire and police officials and developers are wrangling over what to do when theft or fast growth leaves streets signless.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:33 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

It’s a growing problem: Streets are built, and construction workers arrive to begin work on a new subdivision. A worker falls off a roof, and someone calls 911. But emergency responders can’t find the address because streets signs don’t sprout up before the houses are finished.

The city of Columbia does not require street name signs to be installed on new streets before building permits can be issued, said Columbia Public Works traffic engineer Richard Stone. In fact, developers can begin construction on buildings in a new subdivision before planned roads are even built.

The result can be frustrating for fire, emergency medical services or law enforcement personnel who might have to rely on Joint Communications to direct them to a location lacking street signs — most often in a new subdivision — which slows their response time. The same problem exists in areas where street signs are stolen or missing.

“Response time is much slower because of that,” said Sgt. John White, supervisor of the Columbia Police Department’s Community Services Unit.

Battalion Chief Steven Sapp of the Columbia Fire Department is working on a solution with the city’s Office of Protective Inspections, the Planning and Development Department and the Home Builders Association. He has proposed that developers be given the responsibility of erecting temporary signs.

“What we’re asking for is temporary wooden signs that would have the name of the street stenciled on with contrasting letters and numbers and for buildings to have signs with addresses, or to have addresses painted on the side of structures,” Sapp said.

The developer would bear the cost of the temporary signs, but Sapp said he wants developers to have a voice in the solution.

Bob Jurgensmeyer, owner of J&W Land Co., worries about the cost being foisted upon developers. “It makes the cost of the final product higher for everybody involved,” he said.

Jurgensmeyer acknowledged the cost of signs might be small but said it’s part of a trend. Government, for example, in recent years has looked to developers to cover more of the costs for streets and sidewalks. It all adds up, Jurgensmeyer said.

Still, developers themselves would reap at least one benefit: Suppliers would have an easier time delivering materials to building sites, Jurgensmeyer said.

Frank Tillman, president of Timber Creek Town Home Association, liked the sound of the idea but said he would want to explore the cost of the signs.

The city’s chief building inspector, Jim Paneck, said another idea is to have developers supply stencils of street names and building numbers and have staff at the Public Works Department paint street names on curbs at intersections.

While the proposal might be cheaper than wooden signs, Sapp dislikes the idea because the addresses could be obscured by leaves, snow, parked vehicles or trash in the street.

Scott Olsen, assistant chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District, is working on another solution — more accurate maps to guide first responders to locations in new subdivisions. Olsen has collaborated with other city and county agencies, including Joint Communications, ambulance services at Boone Hospital Center and University Hospital, the Boone County Information Technology Department’s Geographic Information Systems and the Southern Boone County and Columbia fire departments, to create a map that shows addresses, existing roads and planned roads.

John Simons, assistant manager of emergency services at University Hospital, said emergency medical personnel have had trouble finding people in need of medical services because roads shown on maps had yet to be built.

“We update typically every couple months or every month because of growth,” Olsen said.

The next update to the map, which can be downloaded at the Boone County Fire Protection District’s Web site — — was scheduled for Jan. 1.

First responders in rural Boone County don’t have the same problem because the county’s Planning and Building Department requires developers to install all infrastructure, including streets and street signs, before the department will record plats of land and issue building permits, senior planner Thaddeus Yonke said.

While the problem is one of rapid growth, first responders have dealt with the annoyance of stolen signs for years.

Sgt. White said Columbia police cannot accurately track how often street signs are stolen because they often do not know if a sign is missing for another reason — for example, when a car accident knocks one down. He said 23 street signs have been reported stolen or recovered this year.

“Any street named after a beer gets stolen weekly,” White said, citing Rolling Rock Drive and Corona Road as examples.

The High Street sign was stolen so often that the city finally took the measure of mounting it high on a utility pole. Still, it has been stolen at least once since that change was made.

“It’s important that everybody know that the theft of these signs is very serious,” Sapp said.

Dennie Pendergrass, chief of operations for the city Public Works Department, said his department does not track how many of the signs it replaces were stolen. He said the department installed 368 street and traffic signs in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

Pendergrass said it costs around $35 to produce a street name sign and, counting man hours and equipment time, about $150 to install a post with two signs on it.

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