GT&T’s 911 salvo

Finally, obviously frustrated by the inane and groundless statements being made with regard to the 911 service, if it could be called that, the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company (GT&T) has fired back a salvo that hit the target.

The GT&T issued a statement on Tuesday that simply confirmed what many citizens already knew: there is a problem with the 911 emergency system – and it’s mostly a people problem. As observers have noted for years, when people call the Guyana Fire Service’s (GFS) emergency number 912, invariably, someone answers. That someone is usually polite, takes the relevant information and fire trucks are dispatched. They don’t always get there on time; they don’t always save the day. Sometimes there are issues with the response time, with water or the state of the roads, but the phone is answered and the GFS responds.

The same cannot be said for the police, which is unfortunate for the citizenry because while fire is a serious issue, crime is about 1,000 times worse. Over the years there have been numerous complaints about the 911 emergency system. The most frequent complaint is that no one answers when the number is called. The second most common complaint is that someone answers but no response is dispatched to deal with the emergency. The third is that whoever answers is impolite and/or abusive. What’s that again about zero tolerance on crime?

A glance at the newspaper’s archives revealed that during the tenure of Floyd McDonald as police commissioner, a letter writer had complained about being insulted and abused by the person who had answered a 911 call. The complaint had been forwarded to Mr McDonald, who, after an investigation, said that the female rank was disciplined.

In 2007, Home Minister Clement Rohee hinted that technical issues involving GT&T were possibly the reason 911 had the largest volume of missed calls in the country. GT&T demurred politely stating that any reports of glitches with the 911 number were treated as priority and attended to immediately.

Early in 2008, 26 police officers received training under the United Kingdom-funded Guyana Security Sector Reform Action Plan (GSSRAP). The 911 emergency system was addressed and it was revealed that its Brickdam operations were to be computerised and legislation put in place to deal with pranksters. Sadly, in October the same year, numerous calls placed to 911 were not answered while a 68-year-old West Demerara grandmother suffocated after she was tightly bound and gagged by bandits who robbed her home.

A week later, a Lethem-bound bus was ambushed by bandits on the Linden-Soesdyke Highway. Two of the passengers were shot and injured and all nine were robbed. Calls were placed to 911, but no one answered the phone, although the police said the service was operational at the time.

In 2009, an overseas-based Guyanese lamented that she had placed over 25 calls to 911 while relatives were drowning in the Abary Creek. While the phone was finally answered, they waited one hour, but the promised assistance did not arrive.

In 2010, two incidents were related by a letter writer, where 911 calls were answered, but no assistance rendered. And it’s not just 911, numerous complaints are made by persons who call the telephone numbers of the police stations closest to their homes and receive no assistance. A particularly poignant case involved the Lusignan Massacre in January 2008. Residents reported that they had made umpteen calls to three East Coast Demerara police stations but received no response. Eleven people died that night and the police did not arrive at the location until after the murderers were long gone.

Credible people must have called 911 over the Easter weekend and received no response because on Tuesday, Mr Rohee, who obviously had a bee in his bonnet, proceeded to lambaste GT&T for not “accepting any responsibility or any blame/fault on their part for the 911 number or calls not going through to the police station or where they ought to be received.” Mr Rohee argued that “people I consider to be credible… would call 911 and they would hear the ringtone in the phone they are using but someone sitting on the other side… there is no number ringing there.”

Well GT&T quickly cleared up that mystery, revealing that “with great frequency” handsets have disappeared from the termination points at the police stations the calls are routed to. Clearly there is need for an investigation here. Handsets (phones) disappearing would seem to indicate theft. But then, there’s no point in calling 911 is there?

The phone company said its checks have also found that 911 phones are taken off the hook or not answered at all during “standard working hours,” which for the police would be 24/7. It is just as we all suspected a long time ago, but kudos to GT&T for finally setting the record straight.

Last month, Mr Rohee revealed that a US$20,000 contract had been awarded to a foreign consultancy to review the 911 emergency service. The report and recommendations have not been made public, but many citizens have made and are making useful suggestions. Among the more salient are: Computerise and merge the emergency services numbers and train, train, train the operators who will be responsible for dispatching police, fire or EMTs to various scenes. Then train them some more and have them answer calls under supervision. And that would not cost a penny. Now it would be interesting to see what the foreign experts have advised.

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