By DÁNICA COTO, Associated Press
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s government said Thursday that it has restored 911 emergency service, but an overnight shutdown of the system led to furious criticism of officials accused of failing to take precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public Safety Secretary Pedro Janer told The Associated Press that 911 calls were now being automatically redirected to other agencies on the U.S. territory and said two dedicated emergency call centers would be back in service by Sunday at the latest.
Janer provoked a storm of confusion on Wednesday night when he announced that that coronavirus infections at the call centers had forced officials to suspend 911 service. He told Puerto Ricans instead to call other, standard numbers for the police or emergency management agency.
Callers to at least one of those numbers were confronted by an automated menu telling them to call 911 in an emergency.
“That makes no sense,” Aramis Cruz, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 310, told the AP. “Imagine calling a switchboard during an emergency.”
Thousands of Puerto Ricans took to social media to express outrage. Many asked why government officials didn’t send an alert to people’s cellphones with the temporary numbers since they have already been sending alerts about a nightly coronavirus curfew.
Puerto Rico’s 911 call centers receive between 9,000 to 12,000 calls a day, of which 35% to 40% are emergencies, Cruz said, though he said he wasn’t aware of any major emergencies that went unanswered during the shutdown.
He said the union in March presented the government with a pandemic backup plan that would involve isolating workers and ensuring they could still perform their duties even if there was a COVID-19 breakout.
“They told me it wasn’t necessary,” he said.
Cruz said the 911 system also is underfunded and doesn’t have a way for operators to work remotely: “The system is obsolete.”
He said two employees in each center had tested positive and that more test results are pending.
Janer said officials had closed the 911 call centers for safety following the infections.
“We are basically hostages of COVID-19,” he said. “It’s attacking when one least expects it.”
When asked why the department didn’t have a backup plan other than asking people to call unknown 10-digit numbers during an emergency, he said, “That’s the most effective one we had at the moment.”
Asked about the backup plan that union leaders presented in March, Janer said, “We keep learning as we encounter obstacles. … We don’t have a crystal ball…. We’re trying to anticipate things, but we’re human.”
He said ordering new equipment or implementing procedural changes require approval from several local and federal agencies, processes slowed due to the pandemic.
A spokeswoman for Yazmín González, commissioner of Puerto Rico’s 911 Emergency System Bureau, told the AP that she was not speaking to the media.
Puerto Rico has reported more than 29,800 confirmed infections of the new coronavirus, as well as more than 29,000 suspected ones and more than 780 deaths related to COVID-19.