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Editorial

911 call system should not fail, not even for a few life-saving minutes

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911 calls cannot go interrupted, not even for a few minutes

GFD: A Guam Fire Department ambulance is shown in Tumon in this Sept. 15, 2020 photo. Post file photo.

At 9:16 a.m. on Thursday, cellphone calls to the emergency 911 system could not go through.

Some land lines were still able to get through.

The "911 wireless and landline services are currently unavailable; if anyone in the public is in need of emergency services – fire, (emergency medical services) and/or police – please proceed to the nearest fire station or police precinct," the Guam Fire Department stated in a WhatsApp message at 10:31 a.m.

Shortly afterward, GFD released a list of phone numbers for fire stations and police precincts. While this might be helpful to some, it's not going to be of use to many. Not every Guam resident is glued to the 24-hour news and updates mindset.

By 10:31 a.m., GFD announced that fire dispatch and 911 emergency lines were back in service.

No major mishap has been disclosed as a result of the emergency 911 system being down.

But what happened is another wake-up call, another reminder of the fissures in our system of getting help in an emergency.

It's a problem that has been around for decades. A performance audit of the GovGuam 911 system, being run by GFD, points to how old the system was in a report released as far back as October 2010. That was more than a decade ago.

Our first reaction, in an emergency, is to dial 911. Asking residents to run to or drive to the nearest police precinct or fire station is going to result in the loss of crucial time when immediate help is needed.

During the time the 911 system could not receive calls from cellphones, there was no immediate way for an ambulance crew or an Advanced Life Support team to know they were needed to rush to someone in a life-threatening crisis such as a stroke or heart attack.

And in a crisis that can turn from a successful rescue or response to a tragedy in just a few minutes, such as a swimmer in distress or a hostage-taking, a 911 system's failure to answer a call could mean saving a life or losing a loved one.

This is not the first time the emergency 911 system has had trouble. 

The Guam Fire Department has known for years it needs to replace its aging Motorola Centralink 2000 E-911 system that was bought back in 1999.

By December 2019, just before the onset of the pandemic, GovGuam still had not installed a new 911 system and the process of choosing a contractor was still underway.

Fast forward to a recent legislative budget hearing and GFD told senators that the emergency 911 procurement process is underway. Still.

It didn't help that during the Calvo administration, the emergency 911 surcharge that phone users pay each month through their phone bills was diverted for other government uses.

"The people of Guam rely on this emergency service in their most desperate hours and deserve the full potential of E911 that can only be provided through sufficient funding," FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly stated in a March 2018 letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Guam inquiring whether a federal investigation was warranted.

In May 2019, the Leon Guerrero administration repaid $3.8 million that had been illegally shifted from the E-911 system by the Calvo administration to other GovGuam expenses.

But now that the Leon Guerrero administration has been seated for more than two years, it's not a stretch to expect a system that does not go completely dark for cellphone users when a phone provider's system goes down.

This latest 911 outage was the result of a phone company, GTA's glitch, according to the company. 

“There was an issue in our Agana central office that impacted landline phone calls to a portion of our landline subscribers. Furthermore, the Agana central office aggregates all local 911 calls from all carriers and those calls were impacted as well. Once our technicians were alerted to the issue, they worked diligently to troubleshoot the problem and resolved it within an hour,” according to GTA.

But the bigger, longer-term concern is the lack of a backup system on the part of the government of Guam in general, and GFD in particular, knowing that outages do happen on the side of a service provider.

The process of selecting a vendor or contractor that will install an updated emergency 911 system is at the "pre-award" phase, according to GFD on Thursday.

It will be at least a year of waiting for the new system to come online from the time a contract is awarded for the new emergency 911 system, according to GFD in the recent budget hearing.

GFD spokeswoman Cherika Chargualaf said the delays were mostly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This system is about saving lives and we cannot stress enough how urgent it is to: 1.) have a redundant backup in place so that all calls will be answered without fail; and 2.) have the new system in place urgently.

We all know on Guam that when a power outage occurs or when a typhoon knocks down our power grid, critical offices, clinics, hospitals and even some homes have power generator backups for when the power supply gets interrupted.

We can't help but draw parallels to the need for GovGuam to establish a redundant system to the 911 emergency service, just like how one would install a standby power generator in a hospital or a clinic that activates within seconds of an outage.

Some will say a standby power generator and a backup system for 911 is like comparing an apple to an orange.

We can never get everyone to agree. But when a loved one can't breathe and 911 dispatch doesn't answer, it will be on those who sat on the 911 upgrades and backup plan because they could have done something to help avert a potentially tragic outcome. 

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