Shortage of EMTs, 911 Woes Slow Response to Medical Emergencies

When an elderly woman lost consciousness at an Audubon Society meeting Tuesday evening, Feb. 21, at the V.I. Legislature in Cruz Bay, two emergency issues which continue to plague St. John were once again brought into the limelight—problems with the 911 system and a shortage of EMTs.

Upon noticing the woman’s distress, an Audubon Society member called 911 from her cell phone. She was put on hold several times, and, after several moments, the 911 operator finally realized the emergency was on St. John.

This is a problem that often occurs, because St. John does not have its own 911 system, and calls to 911 from the island are actually received on St. Thomas.

Calls Routed Off St. John
“We don’t have a 911 system per se in St. John,” said V.I. Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Thomas Hannah. “When someone on St. John calls 911, the call goes to St. Thomas, and St. Thomas then relays that information, via telephone, to Jurgen Command. Once that call goes to Jurgen Command, an officer is dispatched.”

Residents who attempt to call 911 from their cell phone often face an even bigger problem—some cell phone providers route St. John subscribers’ 911 calls to Puerto Rico.

“One of the major drawbacks of the 911 system is when you use your cell phone,” said Hannah. “Everybody should ask their cell phone provider to program their phone’s 911 calls to be routed to the Virgin Islands, and not Puerto Rico. If you are utilizing your cell phone to call 911 from St. John, call 340-776-9110, and you will be routed to St. Thomas.”

Response to medical emergencies can be slowed down by both the 911 system, and by the lack of EMTs on St. John.

One Ambulance Crew
Although the island has two ambulances, only one crew of two employees is on duty at any given time for medical emergencies and transport.

This proved to be a problem for the elderly woman on Tuesday evening.

When the call to 911 did not immediately result in a response from emergency personnel, Gary Ray, who delivered a presentation to the Audubon Society that night, ran to notify the EMS at the nearby Morris F. DeCastro Clinic, only to find that they were out on another call.

Approximately half an hour later, St. John Rescue responded to the call.

“The EMTs got the call, and they turned around and called for us, because at that time, they were almost to the clinic, dropping off a patient,” said St. John Rescue Chief John Bowman.

After completing another call, EMTs finally arrived to bring the woman to Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center.

“We just sat down and chit-chatted with her, to keep her calm,” said Bowman. “That’s why we’re there, to help EMS out. They’re the first responders, and we’re the second level of response.”

Tuesday night’s incident was non-life threatening, but this is not always the case in medical emergencies—which often re-quire immediate medical attention.

St. John would benefit from additional ambulance crews, said Bowman.

“I’d love to see a second EMT crew on St. John,” he said. “That would definitely be handy down here.”

Surprised by 911 Problems
Audubon Society member Margie Labrenz said she was aware of the lack of EMTs on St. John, but was surprised by the problems with the 911 system.

“I wasn’t aware that the 911 system was so bad,” she said. “The girl who called from her cell phone asked me, ‘Don’t they give these dispatchers any training?’”

“I knew that the 911 system has not been functioning the way it should function, and I think the public needs to be aware of that,” LaBrenz added.

Hannah recommended St. John residents call Jurgen Command directly, at 693-8880, instead of calling 911.

“I would strongly urge St. John residents to call Jurgen Com-mand directly,” he said. “There are delays when the call is routed from St. Thomas back to St. John.”

Many people may not know the number to Jurgen Command in an emergency, said Labrenz.

“Where we were, in the Legislature building, there was no phone book to look up that number,” she said. “It was a learning experience for me, and I will certainly make sure that I have that number written down for me and my guests, and I’ll tell other people to do the same thing. There is a significant delay by dialing the 911 operator.”

Plan s for St. John 911
Plans are in place for a 911 system for St. John, said Hannah, but there is not enough financing to implement the system.

“Plans are in place; however, we’ve got to find the financing to do that,” he said. “It’s a costly endeavor.”

In an emergency, St. John residents are urged to call 340-776-9110 from their cell phone, or Jurgen Command at 693-8880.