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Emergency 911 Crew Spikes Concerns

Barbara Petersen told the Source no improper disciplinary actions had been taken at VITEMA. (Source file photo)

Barbara Petersen, assistant director at Territorial Emergency Management Agency, says dispatchers at 911 were already on the heal when 10 dispatchers arrived from the Cleveland area last week. The 911 squads had been hit hard with COVID cases, with over 90 percent of them out because of positive tests or sickness.

She told the Source Tuesday she anticipates that the 911 staff will return to normal operation when the dispatchers from Ohio, who answered an Emergency Management Assistance Compact call, end their two-week stay.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens expressed concerns in a press release Monday about the need to bring in additional 911 operators from Ohio. He wrote, “Last week, I communicated with the Governor’s Office about reported improper disciplinary actions within VITEMA and 911 dispatch in particular. Just a few days later, I learned, first through social media, that ten 911 operators had been brought in from Ohio to assist us here in the Territory.”

Petersen, in a phone interview with the Source, said no improper disciplinary actions had been taken at VITEMA. She said in certain situations, the process containing written and verbal warnings could not be followed. She cited as an example an employee who misses five days in a row and can’t be reached.

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After being told Petersen’s remark Tuesday night, Gittens responded to the Source. “Her reasoning is not an excuse for not following the rules.”

An employee at the dispatch center who spoke to the Source anonymously to protect their job said that at least four people were suspended during the recent pandemic surge. They said one employee was suspended because they walked into the center with their phone on. In December, VITEMA had initiated a policy stipulating employees were not to have phones or other personal devices activated in the center.

Gittens wrote, “We must, of course, guarantee that all calls to 911 are answered, but there is a larger issue in play. We also have local operators who have been suspended without due process and others who have left the job because of ongoing morale concerns.”

Gittens said he was concerned whether the government was doing its job in terms of attracting and retaining properly-trained local employees. The 911 employee told the Source, “First of all, our pay sucks.” The employee also said proper procedure was not followed as far as overtime being assigned. According to the employee, squad leaders took most of the overtime, not giving it to the employee who was next in line for it.

Gittens added that he was “very concerned about the cost of bringing in personnel from outside the Territory.” News sources in Ohio said the territory had agreed to pay all costs for the 10 relief emergency workers.

Petersen says the Virgin Islands dispatchers are doing “a fantastic job,” and a couple of them have been doing it for over thirty years. However, according to Petersen, the jobs at dispatch are demanding and stressful, and some employees feel the need to move on after a few years.

Gittens noted in his press release, “Most people that call 911 are under a degree of stress and may have a hard time providing important details and directions or expressing themselves clearly. Those intimately familiar with the Territory are much better prepared to serve in this critical capacity.”

Petersen said this was not a problem with the relief crew for two reasons. One is that the Ohioans were never on their own in the dispatch center. A Virgin Islander was always present. She also said that for a year now, the territory’s dispatch system has a Rapid SOS system which enables dispatchers to immediately and automatically pinpoint from where a call was made.

Gittens responded to that point, saying sometimes dispatchers had to navigate responders to a scene “street by street, tree by tree.” The employee who called the Source after talking with Sen. Gittens asked, “How do you explain to someone from Ohio our funny estate names; how to spell Mon Bijou or Frangipani.”

VITEMA has 22 dispatchers plus four squad leaders in each district, with also a supervisor in each district for a total of 32 employees.

Petersen, who oversees the operation, says there has not been a problem in keeping a full staff where dispatchers begin with an annual salary right near $36,000.

Gittens, in conversation and the press release, expressed appreciation for the dispatchers who came from Ohio “to lend a hand.”

Petersen added in a side comment Tuesday that dispatchers had added in the last year a system that allows them instant access to translators when a caller is using a language other than English.

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