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Territory, Puerto Rico Establish Protocols for Misrouted 911 Calls

In a recent meeting, local and Puerto Rican officials put their heads together to develop protocols for dealing with emergency 911 calls that are re-routed or transferred off island.
For years, residents in the territory have been plagued with poor cell phone service, with calls often getting lost, dropped or re-routed to Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands.
It is one thing if a personal call gets diverted, but in the event of an emergency, it can be a real problem, V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA) head Mark Walters said in a recent interview.
While Walters and his team have stressed the only real solution is to have more cell phone sites set up in the territory, the new agreement hammered out with Puerto Rico’s emergency system director and other management heads will make sure that stray 911 calls are picked up by a dispatcher and transferred back to the Virgin Islands.
The dispatcher in Puerto Rico will even stay on the line until a local emergency operator answers the call, according to a recent Government House news release.
Contact numbers for the territory’s 911 call centers have been programmed into Puerto Rico’s computer dispatch, an electronic system from which all emergency calls are routed. The new arrangement was tested several times and doesn’t appear to have any kinks, Walters said in a statement Monday.
A recently published news report told of an incident in which a V.I. woman placed a cell phone call to the new emergency 911 center on St. Thomas and got re-routed to Puerto Rico. The call from the woman, who had reportedly suffered some blood loss, was then dropped when the Puerto Rican operator tried to transfer it back. While it was later revealed that the caller did reach a St. Thomas police station, where she was assisted by a local officer, the incident highlights a deficiency in the emergency system, which the government has been trying to revamp since VITEMA recently took control of the old 911 dispatch.
The government does have antennas up in areas such as the West End of St. Thomas, but those are only to help with improved radio communication between local first responders, 911 project director Paul Arnold Jr. said recently.
And for cell phone service to be more reliable, only the cell phone carriers — which are not regulated by the Public Services Commission and under no obligation to do so — can decide whether they want to expand their coverage areas, he added.
"The bottom line is that if the carrier doesn’t find it to be beneficial, then they won’t do it," Arnold explained. "So this is not going to happen tomorrow — I do see it happening in the long term, but definitely not tomorrow."
But talks with carriers, such as AT&T, have borne some fruit, and the company has worked on keeping its local calls within the territory, Arnold said.
In the meantime, the new agreement between the V.I. and Puerto Rico will help boost local efforts to improve emergency communications between residents and first responders, Gov. John deJongh Jr. said in a statement Monday.
"The agreement is a step in the right direction in ensuring the emergency needs of every resident and visitor are covered, particularly in those remote areas," he said.

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