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HomeNewsArchivesEmergency-Dispatch Service 'Outdated, Antiquated and Unrepairable'

Emergency-Dispatch Service 'Outdated, Antiquated and Unrepairable'

Feb. 3, 2009 — A bill appropriating about $1.2 million to help the new emergency 911 system get off the ground provided senators Tuesday with some insight into an operation that officials said is obsolete, antiquated and inefficient.
The bill was tabled indefinitely after Public Finance Authority head Julito Francis explained that the government already has a short-term financing plan in place for $8 million, to be repaid once the Senate authorizes the proposed $400 million gross-receipts tax bond issue. If the bonds aren't floated, and the money isn't paid back within a year, the note converts into a five-year term loan that has to be paid off annually, he said after Tuesday's Committee on Budget and Appropriations meeting.
The overall cost of the project — about $15.1 million for the three different components — sparked what senators called an "eye-opening" discussion on the current state of the territory's 911 system, which Bureau of Information Technology officials said was set up in the 1980s.
"Our current 911 system is an outdated, antiquated and unrepairable system," said Paul Arnold Jr., e-911 project manager. "The current system does not provide the radio coverage needed for the first responders, which includes police, fire, rescue and emergency medical services or EMS. 911 communications are not secure and any citizen can monitor the system. The current 911 emergency call centers are cramped, with old furniture and inadequate equipment. Operators are in low-paying positions with virtually no career opportunities, and their overall performance is well-documented in the public media."
Dropped and rerouted calls to Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands are also commonplace, and operators often have to write down the details of incoming calls and later log them into the computer, Arnold said.
The new e-911 project hinges on the establishment of state-of-the-art call centers in both districts, with equipment that will help the dispatcher ask callers a series of questions for a specific type of emergency, allowing them to send out the correct type of response team to the scene with "minimum delay," Arnold said. Operators will be able to type the responses directly into a computer, and all voice calls to 911 will be digitally recorded.
The new software also has a digital-mapping capability that will allow the dispatcher to see whether there are available response units near the caller's area. The dispatcher will also be able to join several different responders together and can stay on the line until help arrives. The 911 project also includes the installation of radio trunking equipment that will provide better radio coverage throughout the territory, increasing the quality of communications between agencies, Arnold said.
The third critical component is erection of 13 communications towers at specific locations throughout the territory. A government-sanctioned six-month moratorium on tower construction, along with a shortage of funding, has delayed this part of the project even though the towers have been purchased and are currently on island, Arnold said.
Some senators balked at the statement that more funding is needed. Over the past few years, more than $4 million has either been appropriated or transferred to the bureau for the project, and any money put toward the construction of the towers was reprogrammed for other things, said Sen. Usie R. Richards. Meanwhile, none of the new equipment for the system will work if the towers aren't set up, he said.
While Richards lamented the absence of BIT head John George from Tuesday's meeting, Arnold said the government does have a contingency plan in place to lease space on other existing towers within the territory until the moratorium is lifted and the necessary funding put in place. Meanwhile, there is still time, since the call center slated for St. Thomas will be located in the new V.I. Territorial Emergency Agency (VITEMA) building. The headquarters is still being constructed in the old E.D. Plumbing building in Subbase, he said, adding that about $1.4 million has been spent to date on the towers.
Most senators said their concerns about the system hung on a $7.7 million contract that was sole-sourced to IBM for the build out of the call centers.
"I find it a little disturbing that a contract for $7 million is being sole-sourced, because there are people and companies out there that have been trying to get contracts with the government for $5,000, $7,000, or $10,000," said Budget and Appropriations Committee chairman Sen. Louis P. Hill. "They have to go through the procurement process. I see the need for exigency and the need to put the new system in place as soon as possible, but I don't see why it is necessary to sole-source the project instead of putting it through a — let's say, a one-month bid process."
Gov. John deJongh Jr. tapped IBM in 2007 to conduct an assessment on the territory's emergency needs. To go through another company probably would have been counterproductive, especially since IBM had completed the assessment and made recommendations on how to revamp the system, said IBM representative Christopher Heath.
Government House spokesman Jean P. Greaux Jr. echoed Heath's assessment Tuesday. The governor brought the company on to do the assessment based on its track record and expertise in the area, Greaux said.
"At that time, the V.I. Police Department was about to spend an inordinate amount of money on an upgrade for their department only, so the governor put the brakes on that and asked IBM to conduct an assessment on the needs of the territory's response agencies as a whole," Greaux said. "This was paid for completely by the Office of Homeland Security. Given the tenuous situation of the operation in general, the decision was made to ask IBM to put together a solution for the program, and given the critical nature of the communications structure, the governor didn't want to have another company come in, have to do another assessment, and stop the process from moving forward, so the project was given to IBM."
In addition to building out the call centers, IBM provides project management and training for the 911 operators, he said. The company built the unified 911 command center in Washington, D.C., which the governor toured on a 2007 visit. That facility is a larger version of the one under construction in the territory, Greaux said.
"This is also a personnel-services contract, which doesn't require bidding under the V.I. Code," he said.
During the meeting, senators also approved a $500 appropriation transfer for the V.I. Inspector General's Office to start a petty cash fund to cover daily miscellaneous expenses for the agency's office on St. Croix.
Over the next few months, the committee will also look at how local departments and agencies spend their federal funds, Hill said later in the meeting, as officials from the V.I. Public Television System stepped into the well to discuss their budget.
Looking over the paperwork, senators concerns revolved around a list of cell phone, credit card and travel expenses they said could be cut down — including a series of $4,950 payments to Seaborne Airlines for bulk tickets.
Spending on the agency's credit cards is limited, said television system head Osbert Potter. He also said a recent budget cut has prevented WTJX from giving pay increases to its executive staff members and stymied the station's ability to underwrite certain programs. Increases for union employees are negotiated through the collective-bargaining process, he said.
Meanwhile, the station receives about $900,000 annually from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which the agency has two years to spend. Most of the money goes "right back" to PBS for dues, Potter said. But senators remained concerned that the system's failure to file its annual financial report on time recently cost W
TJX more than $14,000 in federal grant money.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting requires that the television system file an annual financial report at the end of February, and WTJX was unable to meet the deadline last year, mostly because of a shortage of staff, Potter said.
Present during Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Hill, Neville James, Wayne James, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Richards, Nelly Rivera-O'Reilly, Sammuel Sanes, Patrick Simeon Sprauve, Michael Thurland and Alvin L. Williams.
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