CNMI Lacks True Emergency 911 System

Antiquated rotary system means calls not always answered on island where they originate

By Bryan Manabat

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Jan. 5, 2017) – Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services Commissioner Clyde Norita says the CNMI has no 911 system.

“All it is is 234-0911. That’s the number, and it has five to six lines, with one more line on Rota and another on Tinian,” said Norita during a media conference last week regarding the recent Susupe fire incident.

Norita said there are problems when answering 911 calls due to the “rotary system.”

Sometimes, he added, if people from Rota call 911 it gets answered on Saipan.

“The rotary system does not direct you to the correct island. It goes to any available line in the 911 phone system. It’s not a 911 system. It’s just a rotary system. And sometimes if people on Saipan call 911 it gets answered on Tinian or Rota.”

Norita said the fire department, the Department of Public Safety and the governor have already discussed transferring the 911 call center to DFEMS so the CNMI can have a “true” 911 system.

Norita said this is incorporated in Sen. Sixto Igisomar’s Senate Bill 19-46, “To establish an Enhanced Emergency 911 NextGen 911 Telephone Communications Systems within the CNMI.”

The DFEMS commissioner is hopeful that the bill will become law and that the 911 system will be transferred to the fire department.

“When Senator Igisomar’s bill becomes law, we will have the authority to promulgate the necessary rules including a 911 user fee to operate and have a true 911 system,” Norita said.

Nationwide, he said, most of the 911 call centers are handled by fire departments.

“When you call 911, you call for police, fire or ambulance. Two of the three belong to the fire department.

“In a true 911 emergency system, when you state your emergency, the system will ask you questions regarding the nature of the emergency while an ambulance is dispatched.

“Our firefighters are trained EMTs so it’s easier for them to answer 911 calls and talk about any medical emergency.”

But Norita said the numberless homes and buildings on Saipan are a challenge for emergency responders.

“The days of turning left at the coconut trees and right after the banana trees won’t hack it anymore. Our community wants a true 911, so we also need to build up the infrastructure, icluding having house numbers.

“If we don’t have a good mapping system, a 911 system is useless.”

Currently, Department of Public Safety dispatchers are manning the 911 call center, DPS public information officer Jason Tarkong said in a separate interview.

He said the dispatchers are private civilians employed by DPS, and backed up by police officers.

The dispatchers are not trained in helping people in an emergency.

“They know basic information, but as for giving CPR instructions over the phone — you have to be certified for those kinds of emergency response,” said Tarkong.

What the dispatchers do is to take accurate information and relay it to the responders, he added.

As for 911 calls that are not being answered, he said sometimes a dispatcher can only deal with one person at a time.

“For example, we had a car accident, and there were seven people calling about the same accident, and some were panicking.”

Tarkong said there’s usually a desk sergeant who helps with the 911 dispatch when several calls are coming in.

He said the average response time when you call 911 is 2 to 5 minutes.

“We are not going to please everybody, and there will be times when you will not get a quick response, but usually once we get the phone call the officers arrive in two to five minutes.”

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