In Case of Emergency . . .

Building an efficient, effective 9-1-1 service for the Turks & Caicos Islands.
By Kathy Borsuk ~ Photos By Claire Parrish

Building an efficient, effective 9-1-1 service for the Turks & Caicos Islands.

By Kathy Borsuk ~ Photos By Claire Parrish

Dial 9-1-1! It’s a universal call for help; an almost-instinctive response to an emergency situation.

And, as of February 7, 2010, in the Turks & Caicos Islands that call will be answered 24 hours a day with, “9-1-1. What is your emergency?,” spoken calmly by an emergency response operator trained to help in whatever the situation, and ready  to dispatch the appropriate assistance, be it police, fire brigade or ambulance.

911 Operator Tammika Lall-Perry

911 Operator Tammika Lall-Perry

A woman on a mission
Having a reliable 9-1-1 system is a given in most countries, but getting it properly started — building a solid foundation — is actually quite an undertaking. Fortunately, the TCI has been graced with the services of Juliette Gooding as project manager since April 2008. A native of Barbados and long-time resident of the Cayman Islands, Ms. Gooding brings extensive experience in the field, having participated in training programs and workshops by the Pan American Health Organization, World Health Organization, University of the West Indies and institutions in the UK and US. She has set up a 9-1-1 center in the Cayman Islands and provided assistance to programs in Barbados and Trinidad. I was especially impressed with Ms. Gooding’s obvious devotion to her job — call it a mission — and her willingness to tackle a number of obstacles to bring this life-saving program to the TCI.
Ms. Gooding’s professionally based approach began with a thorough assessment of TCI’s mid-2008 emergency response situation, studying everything from the communications systems to the number of emergency vehicles available to the staffing levels of police, fire and medical services personnel and their response time. She identified the “weak links” in the system and held extensive meetings with heads of various government departments and local businesses and community organizations to put together a plan that could work. She says, “My goal was to lift up the standards of the emergency response system. Part of this involved changing the mindset of some of the players. We needed to offer the public a faster response and more accountability. It was going to take re-training and re-education and for this, I have not always been the most popular person.”
Names and numbers
New street signs

New street signs

Interestingly, the first and most basic part of establishing a functioning and efficient 9-1-1 program was street naming and creating official addresses. Most island residents know that addresses were not common here. Giving directions — even when in an emergency — often resembles a scavenger hunt: “Go up the road from Glass Shack and make a right by that pink house where Old Charles used to live, go down a ways and take a left by the big palm tree.”

This was all to change as official Street Naming Committees were formed in the various settlements, led by residents. Ms. Gooding explains, “The committees played a key role in collecting and confirming historical street names, choosing names for unnamed streets, establishing them in legal record and inputting them into the 9-1-1 system.” Key was avoiding duplication of names or having similar sounding names that could be easily confused. The next step was to transfer the information into a central data base and assign street numbers. Ms. Gooding expressed special thanks to Tracey Grant of the TCI Survey and Mapping Department, pointing out that “she worked tirelessly (and continues to do so) to ensure all the data was correct, and created maps that display all the addresses and landmarks.”
A visit to the 9-1-1 call center, currently located in a small office in Williams Plaza, displays the results of this exercise on a series of large maps spread across the walls, with each street duly named and each residence duly numbered. This is key, Ms. Gooding says, because, “People are often in a state of distress when they call 9-1-1 and may not have the peace of mind to carefully spell out their street name or explain their location. Having distinct and unique names and numbers for each home or business will save lives by ensuring that emergency services are always sent to the right location.”
As of April 1, 2009, most streets in Providenciales were named and numbered, with maps available on the 9-1-1 website, (The other Islands will follow shortly.) Besides an extensive campaign by 9-1-1 volunteers to visit and register local businesses, residents are urged to check the website to learn their full, official address. (I found this kind of exciting, having never had an address before. I felt a measure of security in knowing that, should I have a problem, 9-1-1 dispatchers can send help directly to our home.)
Immediately following street naming was the official installation of street signs, which began in July. The standardized signs, typically funded and installed by area homeowner’s associations, neighborhood watch groups and civic organizations, are placed on roadside corners, designating both street names and emergency zone areas. Ms. Gooding is currently urging all residents to number their homes and businesses with clear, visible reflective numbers, placed near the road and on the front door of the house. This, too, can only help emergency services to reach you as quickly as possible. Legislation is currently in progress to make it an offense to deface or destroy street signs and to make address numbering mandatory.
Brains and backbone
While the literal “groundwork” was being laid, the brains and backbone of the 9-1-1 system were being readied. Recruits were sought to become certified 9-1-1 dispatchers. Ms. Gooding explains the type of people she looks for, “The main qualification is to have common sense and the ability to think fast. They must read between the lines and figure things out. They must have the personality to manage and adapt to stressful situations and be able to comprehend instructions quickly and accurately.” She conducted formal interviews with all applicants, making sure THEY understood the nature of the job as well:  long hours, lots of stress. The final candidates then took part in a six month training program, with lots of testing and walk-through scenarios along the way. Besides becoming familiar with the detailed emergency response cards, they had to learn to use the 9-1-1 computer program, dispatch responders using telephone or radio, complete incident reports and, most importantly, remain calm and cool no matter what was happening on the other end of the line. An important part of the job also includes post-incident follow-up, including scheduling police visits to a crime scene and maintaining accurate records so that results can be quantified. In the end, a total of eight dispatchers were “deputized” on February 4, 2010, and awarded internationally recognized certificates in Fire Safety Communications and Public Safety Communications through the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO Institute).
The computerized backbone of the system is still a work in progress, set up with the technical skills of Assistant Manager Elery James and radio communications from Pugh & Associates, who manufacture the system. Besides helping dispatchers readily find street addresses and prepare incident reports, it also ties in to the TCI Government’s Road Traffic Department records, aiding dispatchers in providing police officers with vehicle descriptions when license plate numbers are provided. Along with a cash donation, local telecommunications company Digicel helped get things started by offering free access to any available Digicel communication tower, trunk lines over their fixed wireless network, stand-alone wireless desktop handsets if regular service is disrupted and free on-net calls and Blackberry Smart phones for emergency use.
Paying the bill
And speaking of funds . . . (or lack thereof) . . . this has been another obstacle nobly tackled by Program Manager Gooding. The country-wide financial meltdown started just as the 9-1-1 program was getting off the ground, and a major and unexpected part of her job responsibility over the last 1 1/2 years has been to “procure resources” from the private sector that were to have been provided by government. To date, local banks have been the most generous supporters — including large donations from Scotiabank, the TCI Banker’s Association, Royal Bank of Canada, British Caribbean Bank and First Caribbean. Ms. Gooding says they still need funds to purchase additional computers and the expensive 9-1-1 component system (which will link together the various departments), and to move forward to the other Islands.*
A passion for service
But a visit to the 9-1-1 center proves that, to Juliette Gooding and her staff, providing emergency response aid is a passion. The small room hums with a serious readiness, as two dispatchers and a supervisor work in 12 hour shifts. Operators respond to calls with the five all-important “Ws”:  Where are you located? . . . What is happening? . . . Who are you (name and phone number)? . . . What are the signs and symptoms? . . . Are any weapons involved? Dispatchers have at their fingertips a “card catalog” specifically coded for medical, law enforcement or fire service emergencies, with scripted instructions on how to handle anything from heart attacks to burglaries, including pre-arrival instructions for emergency personnel. Ms. Gooding says the goal is to dispatch the proper responder within 60 seconds, often using one operator to man the phone or radio to contact police, fire or medical services, while the other operator stays on the line with the caller, helping to keep them calm and giving instructions that can save lives. There is currently one Creole-speaking and one Spanish-speaking dispatcher, with interpreters on-call at all times.
My initial idea was that the center would get few calls, or that they would be primarily on evenings and weekends, especially late at night when clubs and bars are in full swing. However, Ms. Gooding quickly dispelled that notion by revealing that, in the first eight days of full operation, the center received over 120 calls, averaging about 15 calls/day. In fact, several calls came in during the short time we visited the center!
Looking forward
Besides improving the 9-1-1 system as funds become available and emergency responders adapt to the program; expanding service to the other Islands and training Assistant Program Manager Elery James to eventually take over her role, Juliette is also planning presentations to business groups, schools and other public forums on the program. She has already kept broadcast and print media well-informed as to each step of progress, issuing public advisories on how to make best use of the system (including the no-nos, such as allowing children to play with phones or make prank calls and the difference between a robbery and a burglary ) and the web site is a continually updated wealth of information.
I think I can speak for the entire community when I consider the 9-1-1 system and its dedicated operators to be like a flock of guardian angels, hovering in the background, ready to help us in our hour of greatest need. I offer my sincere thanks to all involved.
For more information, visit
*Editor’s note: CORRECTION:
In the Spring 2010 issue’s story “In Case of Emergency,” we left out some important information. First of all, 9-1-1 Assistant Program Manager Elery James has played a vital role in improving TCI’s emergency services program since 2003; his years of being an active volunteer firefighter opened his eyes to the urgent need for this service. In fact, the 9-1-1 system’s current server, software and monitors were purchased by the TCI Royal Police Force, with Mr. James completing the set-up with support from Terrance Robinson of Lorters Computing, Ron Williams of TouchComm Networks and a donation of network cards from Compronics. Mr. James’s own company, Technical Concepts, donated all the communication devices needed to build and bring the 9-1-1 system to the position it is in today. When the article was written, IT Specialist Linden Pratt and Strategic Technologies Ltd. was not involved in any of the computer system work, and has withdrawn their offer to do so in the future. We regret leaving out this important information and look forward to expanding on and updating the 9-1-1 program story in a future issue.


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angel nimer
Jun 30, 2010 15:17

there should b a website to contact police from using my computer in case my phone was broken and my family was in danger and there should be some one on line ready to take our call 24/7

Aug 12, 2010 20:27

I’d like to see more street named after our great ancestor in the TCI.

We must embrace our culture and preserve our heritage.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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