Today’s Opinion: A response emergency

POSTED: 03/29/11 3:05 AM

Emergency response in St. Maarten needs serious attention. That is a bold assertion, and one we do not make lightly and without first testing it.

The reason we do this is concern about how quickly emergency services respond to the calls they receive. Sunday’s incident where a 16-year-old is one example as residents in the area said they believe the response of getting to the scene and on the water was too slow. So let’s have a look at the response from several of the key emergency service agencies.

The emergency number for the police is 911. This number is famous the world over and in any show on TV one is met by an operator when they dial. They usually say, “911, please state your emergency.” Here in the Friendly Country you’ll get an automated voice telling you, “You have reached the police station. If this is an emergency, please dial one.” It is incomprehensible and inexcusable that someone, who may be frightened by a burglar in their home or has managed to scramble away from attacker and reach a phone, has to listen for the options before they can get some help.

The St. Maarten Medical Center also startles us, because not only are people subjected to dialing a seven digit number – 543-1111 – in order to call in an emergency, they’ll then have to dial a four digit extension. The incredulous nature of this does not stop there however. When you call 543-1111 the automated voice says, “You have reached the St. Maarten Medical Center. If this is a medical emergency please dial 1400.” The major issue here is that the four digit extension is… well… wrong. You see 1400 sends you to the administrator in the emergency room, who will take the information about what’s ailing you so terribly at the particular moment. The number that will potentially tap you into a doctor in the emergency room is 1401. Now let’s ask ourselves this: Who does a pregnant woman wish to speak to if she’s alone and gone into labor? An administrator or a doctor? We think the answer is obvious, at least to us anyway.

The Fire Department (919) and the Ambulance Department (912) do a bit better with their emergency numbers. There is an issue with the one of the fire department as it also ties into the operator’s number for the policy arm and rang busy on several occasions. The Ambulance Department picked up very quickly, but we’ll chalk that up to the fact that we called the seven digit number in the directory – 542-9292, asked if there was an emergency number and then called right back.

The Coast Guard could also be looked at as emergency response agency, which puts its focus on things on the water. In fact it is listed with the maritime police, the port authority, the St. Maarten Sea Rescue Foundation and Sheriff Security. The latter is on the list unofficially.

The Coast Guard, which is listed as 545-5075, greets callers with an automated answering service which says, “You have reached the support unit of the Coast Guard in St. Maarten.” The rest is the litany of four extensions that people can dial. None of those extensions take emergencies into account. Well if you stretch, “For any other queries dial 4 or stay on the line,” we guess you can use that to report an emergency. We understand the argument that a boat in trouble will use its radio to sound the alarm, but a person on a jet ski in trouble does not have the luxury of a radio to call the Coast Guard and let’s consider that whatever caused the boat to be in trouble has damaged the radio and someone on land is trying to call. What then?

The arguments presented here are not simple dreamy stuff and cooked up scenarios. These are raw facts that need to be considered as emergency responses for day to day living and disasters are drafted, monitored and reviewed. The facts as presented also lead us to believe that a lot of delay can be solved, by not linking the emergency numbers to regular office numbers, which could become jammed during office hours. Changing that should be pretty simple.

We firmly believe that good planning can and does save lives and every little bit of preparation, will lead to a great deal of prevention.

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