VITEMA Director Daryl Jaschen on Friday sought to end further fallout from a Thursday hearing where senators learned that calls from Spanish-speaking residents to the 911 Emergency Call Center were not being translated in real time.

Jaschen confirmed the problem in a statement noting the agency is actively recruiting 911 operators fluent in Spanish.

“The agency has had challenges recruiting qualified bilingual operators,” he said. “It is my hope that the attention brought to our need for Spanish speakers will ignite an interest in members of our community to take up this role. We look forward to expanding our team in service of our Latin community.”

During Thursday’s hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, Public Safety and Veteran’s Affairs, senators learned that the agency — which is now responsible for the 911 Emergency Call Center instead of the V.I. Police Department — has 37 operators with language capabilities including English and patois.

Jaschen, in his statement Friday, said VITEMA relies on translators from the V.I. Police Department and V.I. Fire Service.

VITEMA, he said, is “actively working to recruit 911 operators with an emphasis on individuals fluent in Spanish” and in the meantime is working with VIPD and VIFS “to provide translation support within minutes of a call.”

Jaschen, who noted that 911 operators are the community’s first connection to critical resources during all emergency situations said “our goal is to inclusively serve our community by facilitating the seamless deployment of vital emergency services.

According to the statement, VITEMA “expects that Language Line Solutions Inc., a system which provides real-time translation and transmission services of over 50 languages and dialects, will be up and running on March 18.

Bilingual individuals, especially those fluent in Spanish, interested in becoming a 911 operator should send resumes to contact@vitema.vi.gov.

History of concerns

This marks at least the third time VITEMA is facing concerns over the operation of the territory’s emergency call system.

The agency has suffered gaps in phone service that many blamed on the death of a St. John emergency responder, and failed to issue a timely tsunami warning.

In January 2018, VITEMA officials dealt with another fallout after a tsunami advisory, issued just before 11 p.m., did not reach V.I. residents until after midnight. Most residents learned that a large earthquake struck the western Caribbean — and about the tsunami warning for the Virgin Islands from the Tsunami Center in Hawaii — via national television and from stateside friends and family before they received VITEMA’s notification.

At the time, then VITEMA Director Mona Barnes blamed “connectivity” issues, saying during a subsequent press conference that its V.I. Alert advisory actually was issued at the same time it was reported by the center in Hawaii.

Even so, V.I. residents would still have found themselves in a bit of a jam as Barnes also said during the press conference that none of the territory’s 42 tsunami sirens were working. Residents, she said, would have had to rely on police sirens, bullhorns and flashing lights to become aware of the impending disaster.

The tsunami sirens — installed from 2011 through early 2017 with a $1 million federal grant — were damaged during the twin hurricanes in September 2017.

Further, during Senate testimony in September 2018, Barnes blamed a gap in phone service on carriers for a lack of responsiveness from the 911 call center. That gap in service was blamed for the August 2018 death of a retired emergency responder, for whom the St. John ambulance is named.

At the time Barnes told senators that an internal investigation revealed no glitches with the 911 system.