• The Star Staff

With 911 centers shut down, emergency calls were ‘left in limbo,’ leaving domestic violence victims

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

“The calls that could have been made by any human being in this country, including victims of domestic violence, were not answered properly. Many were left in the limbo because we are not working as a system like the one that works within the agency.”

That is what 911 Emergency Systems Bureau (NSE911 by its Spanish initials) Public Safety Telecommunicators (PST) employee Ingrid Pérez told The Star on Thursday when asked what happened to the emergency phone calls after Public Safety Secretary Pedro Janer announced in a written statement that the only two 911 call centers on the island had to shut down after two employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Pérez said some of the personnel that have been assigned to attend to the matter are not certified by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, which certifies a PST as capable of serving the public in an emergency phone call. She added that “we are on the verge of one of the worst weekends that could ever be experienced in the modern history of Puerto Rico because there is no system that is working 100 percent.”

“They are working like a switchboard. Calls are redirected to 787-343-2020 and 787-724-0140, [and] only one phone call is answered at a time; it’s unlike our system, which transfers calls randomly, and we are always waiting for calls and there are enough PSTs to answer all calls,” Pérez said. “What they have are two PSTs -- that’s what there is. It’s not that the agency opened, it’s not that everything is fine. On the contrary, that’s not true.”

Pérez, who has worked for NSE911 for more than four years, told the Star that “the agency has done nothing other than patch up” and the bureau’s civil servants have been working under poor conditions. Those conditions are such that workers have been unable to comply with physical distancing protocols, while there is a lack of sanitization products. At the same time there is faulty technology, poor office furniture, and a hostile environment, which she said doesn’t feel safe. She added that the PSTs have been unable to work remotely even though the bureau is self-sustainable from funds that come from a 50-cent or $1 tax on telephone service subscribers that are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission Law.

“We could turn back to every phone call that was registered a long time ago in a former software we had installed; now, we are only able to run through the calls that were made since the system, for which $4.1 million was badly spent, was installed,” Pérez said. “The system is crazy. We have to use the heck out of Google Earth and try to use the software’s map as much as we can, but it doesn’t work -- we get lost as the map software is tough to maneuver where the caller is located.”

As for the cases of gender violence that could have been left unattended after the sudden 911 call center shutdown, Colectiva Feminista en Construcción leader Shariana Ferrer said “we have seen the collapse of an entire government infrastructure for managing a public emergency.”

Ferrer added that even though it has occurred to the collective to call the temporary phone number in case of an emergency, it should not surprise citizens that the government let “something as essential as that service collapse.” She said the organization has received complaints from both participants and gender violence victims as their reports are taken lightly and the response “has been slow, [making it] unable to prevent an aggression, or worse, a murder.”

“We live in a country in a precarious situation. There have been protocols reviewed, but there’s not enough staff, there is no personnel to take emergency calls, and, right now, amid a pandemic, those who we thought were more than capable of working under a state of emergency, we’re witnessing that they’re not even [capable of] that,” Ferrer said. “It looks like the government is pushing us into an ‘every person for themselves’ and ‘to each their own’ type of situation when we should be getting collective outlets and governmental efficiency that, unfortunately, we’re not getting at the moment.”

On the other hand, the rights activist said the next government should appoint civil servants who are capable enough to safeguard the island’s public safety and manage every public entity.

“We have seen people with little to no experience leading government agencies, no matter how much they want to work, they’re not prepared to assume their roles,” she said. “So we must opt for other recruitment mechanisms for managerial positions that [emphasize] competencies because, in the end, it is the country that suffers.”

Public Safety Dept. purchases laptops for employees

Earlier in the day, Janer said on Radio Isla 1320 that the agency bought laptops for both NSE911 officials and other department employees “so they are capable of working at their homes and remotely.”

“They are in the process of arriving; they must be programmed so they can be used by 911 radio operators,” he said.

Meanwhile, when reporter Julio Rivera Saniel asked for the date when the laptops were purchased for the PSTs, the Public Safety chief was unable to provide an exact date. He said “the computers were purchased months ago.”

CWA Local 3010 president demands immediate response

Communications Workers of America Local 3010 (CWA Local 3010) President Aramis Cruz Domínguez demanded that NSE911 Commissioner Yazmín González address the recent negligence immediately by preparing an adequate work plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“NSE911 receives about 10,000 calls a day. The personnel hired to attend them are certified and trained for that,” Cruz Domínguez said. “In March 2020, our organization presented a comprehensive plan for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic to the 911 administration. It included the garrisoning of employees in the facilities with 12-hour shifts and routine COVID-19 tests for the respective relief; we also suggest creating a plan for remote cell phones and sharing alternate phones with the public. Commissioner González took these suggestions and completely ignored them. She is the first person responsible for the disaster.”

The CWA Local 3010 president added that “many are unaware that 911 is the line that activates an entire security scaffolding and, in many cases, includes agencies that are not part of the public safety component, such as the Women’s Advocate Office.”

“PSTs are also trained to handle crises and channel emergencies,” Cruz Domínguez said. “The other safety components are not, which puts emergency care in the country at risk.”