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Some places, it's still 'hang a left where the barn used to be'

Try finding a farmhouse at NW Section 6, Township 4, Range 7W.

Now try finding it in a snowstorm at night with no street signs, knowing every second you waste could cost someone's life.

The province's rural addresses are still obscure despite a slow move to standardize them and actually put up signs naming each road. That makes it hard for medics, police and firefighters to find emergencies.

Much of Manitoba -- no one appears to know quite how much -- still relies on the address system created in the 1870s when the province entered Confederation and the Dominion Land Survey divided the prairie into mile roads. Those are the old section-township-range formulas that sound more like legal land title descriptions than house numbers.

Rural Manitobans don't even use that old system much. Medics, police and municipal officials joke that addresses usually amount to little more than "take a left at the red barn that burned down a while back, then turn after Reimer's pasture."

But some rural municipalities have made the finicky leap into the 21st century and adopted modern road and house numbers like the ones provincial officials recommended years ago. That's the system medics would love to see used provincewide.

It uses the established mile roads to make a new, logical grid pattern that mimics the old board game Battleship.

Every east-west road that runs parallel to the American border is numbered based on the distance in miles north of the border. So, Road 1 North runs parallel to the border, just one mile north.

North-south roads are numbered based on the Principal Meridian. That's an arbitrary survey line just west of Winnipeg. Roads located west of the arbitrary line are called Road 1 West, Road 2 West and so on. Same thing on the east side of the Principal Meridian -- Road 1 East and so on.

Take the RM of North Cypress around Carberry, which is in the midst of moving toward the new numbering system.

One of the 600 homes there might become something akin to 75001 Road 56NW instead of some wordy jumble of townships and range roads.

"I think it's going to be a huge change for many residents," said Brent McMillan, the chief administrative officer in North Cypress. "You used to be able to call and say 'two doors down from the old Smith house.' "

But emergency officials say a standard system used by every municipality works best, and it's vital to educate homeowners, especially elderly ones, about their new addresses. And it's vital to install signs on roads. You'd be surprised how many roads are unmarked, officials say.

"We need to know where you are," said Mark Shymanski, geographic information system co-ordinator at the Medical Transportation Co-ordination Centre in Brandon. "That's what it boils down to."

North Cypress is hoping to get some federal gas-tax funding to help cover the costs of overhauling its addresses. McMillan hopes to have the number blades installed on every home and road signs on every corner in about a year.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2009 B1

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