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New 911 System a "Tremendous Improvement," Governor Says

Call center supervisor Carolyn Wattley, Gov. John deJongh Jr. and VITEMA Director Mark Walters watch as 911 operator Sanya Harrigan handles an emergency call.Operations at the new state-of-the-art 911 call center on St. Thomas launched last week, and officials said Wednesday they are already looking at ways to make it better.
That includes figuring out how to keep civilians with scanners from listening in on police calls, V.I. Territorial Emergency Management (VITEMA) head Mark Walters said, as he took Gov. John deJongh Jr. on a tour of the facility. Walters said he hopes to have that technology in by next month.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials on hand for Wednesday’s tour said the territory’s new system is comparable to those in other jurisdictions, such as New York City, whose hub puts police, fire and emergency management services under one roof. Technology available at that facility allows operators to easily pinpoint a caller’s location if they are using a landline and can also use cell phone tower signals to triangulate their position if the call is lost or the connection broken.
"I think once you get those things developed here, you’ll really have everything you need," said Michael Moriarity, FEMA’s deputy Region II administrator. "This system really enhances the local capabilities, especially when it comes to handling everything from routine calls to the high-end ones."
Meanwhile, VITEMA and officials from other law enforcement agencies, such as the Police Department and Fire Services, have collaborated on really revamping the old dispatch that was in place and turning it into what Walters described as a "robust" emergency response system.
Emergency 911, previously housed under VIPD, is among the list of local emergency management components that were transferred over to VITEMA in a recent government reorganization.
Walters said the St. Thomas call center, housed in the old ED Plumbing building in Sub Base, received about 2,500 calls between Oct. 21 and Oct. 25 — an average of 500 calls a day and 600 during peak hours on the weekends. These statistics, he added, were never really known before. Further, when a call comes in, the operator logs all the information into a computer at their station, preserving the information for future reference.
When calls come in, the pick-up time is generally quick, but in the event that multiple individuals phone in at the same time, the calls are queued and answered by the next available operator. If a caller hangs up, the operator will call them back and verify their emergency, Walters said.
Both local and FEMA officials also watched a new 911 operator put her training to the test by handling a mock call from a resident reporting an assault. The operator gathered as much firsthand information as possible, including a description of the suspects and victim, and then dispatched both police and emergency medical technicians to the scene.
Over the past few months, operators at both the St. Thomas and St. Croix call centers have been trained in everything from customer service to handling calls about weapons of mass destruction. The training will be ongoing, ensuring that only the best and most qualified operators are in the seat, Walters said.
Police Commissioner Novelle Francis Jr. and Fire Services Director Victor Browne said the facility’s new radio trunking system keeps their first responders in constant contact with one another and VITEMA without interruption.
"It puts all of us in a virtual conference," Browne said. "We no longer have to waste time trying to figure out where everyone is. The guys like it — they talk about it all the time."
Francis spoke of improved connections in dead zones and how the new system gives VIPD quick access to information during emergencies.
Speaking after his tour, deJongh described the system as a "tremendous improvement."
"It really is a comprehensive approach we’re taking," he said. "And I think this facility, which puts VITEMA and all its components under one roof, really shows the commitment we’ve made to improving the overall safety of the community."

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