FARMINGTON — Not having an address can sometimes be a matter of life or death.

For many San Juan County residents, this has become clear as emergency responders for years have struggled to find homes on roads that don't have names or numbers.

"I've seen it myself," said Davis Henry, a grazing committee member with the Navajo Nation's Burnham Chapter. "There's been times when I had to track down the ambulance at night, flashing my lights."

Henry is just one of the people who has spearheaded an effort to get addresses for several hundred families in three separate communities on the Navajo Nation.

Chapter officials in Burnham, Beclabito, and Gadii'ahi (also known as Cudei) have joined together to buy signs that will mark the roads that their members live on. Many of them met for a demonstration of the signage Wednesday morning at the Burnham Chapter.

Burnham chapter alone spent $11,000 on signs for roads that lead to about 150 homes. Any road that had three or more homes on it was slated for a sign, which includes only a number.

The road numbers are distributed by the county, solely so that responders can locate them. But the chapters must buy them.

"It's an expensive proposition because you have to put a sign at every fork in the road," said Nancy Smith, rural addressing coordinator for San Juan County.

Though the county cannot afford to fund the effort, it has provided some of the resources needed to create a database.


Chapter officials themselves had to go out to each home and hand-draw maps of every road and every home in their vicinity before handing them over to the county, which then created a digital version of the map, Smith said.

The maps will be given to the Navajo Nation eventually so that the tribe can add the maps to its own database, which will be used by tribal emergency responders.

Both the county and tribe will be able to use the maps once all the signs are put into place, and once each of them puts the maps into their database.

"This is a huge stride," Smith said.

Still, much work has to be done to truly make the effort worth it. The assigned road numbers will help, especially with the signs posted, though the homes still will need addresses.

The addresses must be sent to the chapters by the tribe, which has been somewhat slow in responding.

"Us three chapters, we took the initiative," said Henry, who said the chapter officials are trying to take the matter into their own hands as much as possible.

"We have a lot of elders," he said, noting that they are particularly in danger if emergency responders are slowed.

Elders are also at risk because they often are alone and cannot always speak clearly about an emergency situation, said Sheri Rogers, systems administrator for the San Juan County 911 center.

Often times the elders in the rural areas of the Navajo Nation have limited English speaking skills, and they are not mobile, she said.

"We'll have instances where we'll say, Can you hear the sirens?'" Rogers said.

If they are with someone, sometimes the person can come out to flag down the responders or give them an idea where they are in relation to the call, but it can be very confusing when they are panicked.

"They are not always thinking straight," Rogers said. "Sometimes a half-mile can seem like three miles... It definitely can be the difference between life or death."