A report compiled for the government on the state of the Cayman Islands’ 911 emergency communications system has identified problems with centre staffing, budget and technology issues.
The review, which was done by 911 officials for the Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs, was given to government last month. It identified six major problem areas for the Department of Public Safety Communications, which encompasses 911, electronic monitoring, and CCTV monitoring. Two areas of the report were redacted because of security-related concerns in releasing the information.
The review noted 911 had made great strides in improving work and accountability to the public in recent years, but certain areas – such as staff turnover and short staffing – remained major issues.
“Rest room breaks were hurried, leaving just one telecommunicator responsible for over 24 telephone lines and 30-plus radio channels,” the report revealed about the previous working situation. “Meal breaks were nonexistent, which led to an agreement to pay overtime to telecommunicators.”
As of mid-2008, there were only eight qualified 911 telecommunications staffers available to run a minimum of two positions, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, the report stated. Some staff has been hired since, but day-to-day operations are still a challenge.
“Until the entire roster of telecommunicators (16 posts) is filled with qualified employees and has stabilised, it will be inadvisable to proceed with the non-renewal of foreign workers in those posts,” the report read.
Turnover at 911 emergency operations is not unusual worldwide, due to generally low pay, an uneven workload, employee burnout and stress. At the emergency communications centre, the report noted some of those conditions have been mitigated and the service now has 13 people trained as telecommunicators.
The communications centre also reported a “dramatic increase” in employees taking extended sick leave.
“These benefits have had a significant impact on overtime costs and can be a source of burnout on the part of the other employees who must work the extra hours to cover the shift,” the 911 report noted.
There was “little that can be done” to alleviate the situation, according to 911 officials.
Another ongoing issue with 911 emergency communications related to locating individuals who call 911 on their cell phones.
The emergency communications centre serves as a “first, first responder” routing all calls for police, fire and ambulance to the appropriate agency. The information 911 provides to those responding units is frequently crucial to protect the safety of not only the callers, but the responders as well.
In recent years, landline phones – which can be traced to an address by telecommunicators – have become less and less common as cell phones, BlackBerrys, iPhones and the like have become predominant.
This creates a big problem for emergency communications.
“Unlike the landline phones, calls placed to 911 during an emergency situation do not provide the Public Safety Communications Centre with the address or location of the caller,” the report states.
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission has mandated the use of technology allowing a cell signal to be tracked within 50 metres of a caller’s location, 911 officials note.
“Consideration should be given to form a task force … to determine the best approach for the implementation of wireless 911 location technology and costs involved,” the report reads.