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Country’s 911 Service a Regional Leader

IT may be understaffed. It may receivequestions such as whether or not it is goingto rain today or what time Saprissa is playingLa Liga in a much-anticipated soccermatch.But Costa Rica’s state-of-the-art 911Emergency Call System, tucked away inLlorente de Tibás, a northern San José suburb,is the first and only nationwide systemof its kind in Central America.Sitting at his desk in the middle of thecenter one recent afternoon, supervisorOscar Carvajal spoke with obvious prideabout the way the call center has evolvedsince it was founded in 1994.ORIGINALLY, the NationalEmergency Commission (CNE) managedthe center, which served only metropolitanSan José. However, Carvajal said, “theCosta Rican Electricity Institute (ICE)adopted us” in 1995 when the demand fora nationwide service was evident and thecommission no longer had the funds orpersonnel to go it alone.Now, although the call system maintainsits own building and staff, it is fundedentirely by ICE through a tax ofapproximately ¢76 ($0.16) on every telephonebill. The system’s budget thereforevaries depending on the total number ofCosta Rican telephone users, but averages¢110 million ($236,559) per month,according to head of operations GermanGuendel.ICE, the state telecommunicationsmonopoly, bought a $2 million computersystem from Canadian company Positronin 1999 to help operators transmit informationquickly and efficiently to a varietyof emergency contacts throughout thecountry.OPERATORS’ primary task is toenter key data into the computer as quicklyas possible. The computer system thentransmits the information instantly to theappropriate police or medical agency inthe caller’s region of the country. Theoperator can also set up conference calls orsend information by fax if the situationdemands it.Speed is always an issue.“We receive 16,000-18,000 calls aday,” Carvajal said, adding that only 30-40% of those calls are emergencies. “Here,they’ll call us for anything.”Veteran operator Elmer Mora, who hasworked at the center for all 11 years of itsoperation, said he has received plenty ofcalls from people wanting to know thatday’s lottery results or the directions to arestaurant.As if on cue, Mora received a call.“Is this Information?” a woman said.“No, ma’am, it’s not,” Mora saidpolitely. “Call 113, please.”TRENDS in the serious calls dependon the time of day, Carvajal said. From 6-8 a.m., traffic accidents and illnesses prevail.At midday, cooking accidents involvingchildren are frequent. Operatorsreceive more calls on traffic accidents inthe late afternoon, particularly when childrengo home from school, and from 4p.m. on, assaults are commonly reported.When a 911 operator takes a call, thephone number, address and name of thephone line owner are instantly displayedon the screen. As soon as the caller identifiesthe nature of the emergency, theoperator clicks on the appropriate code,which then prompts him or her with a listof key questions.Once key information has been given,operators simply click on the appropriateregional authority, be it the MunicipalPolice of San José or the Limón RedCross, to transfer the information.The Fire Department, Transit Police,National Commission on Intoxication(CNI), Child Welfare Office (PANI) andNational Women’s Institute (INAMU) areother organizations to which operators forwardinformation.All operators and their supervisors canaccess the recordings and notes from allpending cases, allowing them to track theaction regional authorities have taken oncalls first received in San José.OPERATORS receive three monthsof training and an onsite practicum duringwhich they are paired with experiencedoperators to learn the ropes, Carvajal said.They must speak at least basic English andare encouraged to learn a third language aswell. While operators’ salaries depend onseniority and experience, the base pay is¢183,000 ($394) per month, according toGuendel.Carvajal added veteran operators suchas Mora get to know “a little of everything,”from obscure drug names, to theins and outs of small towns they havenever seen, to the best way to calm a franticparent.Though apparently relaxed on this particularafternoon, Mora was visibly movedwhen he spoke of more stressful moments,such as the violence last year in the shantytownof La Carpio, west of San José.Residents’ protests against a garbage companyresulted in police intervention andriots in which 30 people where seriouslyinjured and seven were shot, including a14-year-old boy (TT, June 4, 2004).Mora remembers receiving call aftercall that night. After dispatching the RedCross to the scene, there was little more hecould do but attempt to comfort thescreaming children and crying motherswho dialed 911 in desperation.“It made me want to—” He paused tomime tearing off his headset and throwingit on the desk.Before he could dwell too long in therealm of memory, however, the next callbrought him back to the present moment,in which teenagers vandalized cars, a firesmoldered in a vacant lot, and a man laytrapped in an overturned truck.Last week’s tragic bank holdup inSanta Elena de Monteverde, a town innorth-central Costa Rica (TT, March 11),likely created more stressful memories for911 operators. Erly Hurtado, the man whoheld hostages in a Banco Nacional branchfor more than 28 hours, called 911 frominside the bank after his two accompliceswere shot outside while trying to enter.Operators connected him to JudicialInvestigation Police (OIJ) negotiators rightaway, according to Guendel.He added that the call center receiveda flood of calls from Monteverde residentsimmediately after the assailants’ violentattack on the bank, but that the volume ofcalls did not pose a problem for operators.PRANK callers: beware.When Mora asked one caller, “Do youhave an emergency?,” the caller responded,“No, I don’t. I’m drunk off my ass,though,” and hung up, laughing.With the phone number, address andname of the phone line’s owner alreadyvisible, Mora carefully typed in thecaller’s comments and clicked on the codefor “Undue Call.”If two or three calls like that are madefrom a single number, authorities can levyfines from ¢50,000-70,000 ($107-150),according to Carvajal. These funds areused, in part, to help fund 911’s educationalefforts.This year, the system launched schoolworkshops designed to teach children howto use – and how not to use – 911.The center has also come up with itsown strategies to minimize the effect ofprank calls. Because such calls often comefrom public phone booths, the center hiredtwo non-emergency operators solely tofield those calls, reducing the number ofprank calls that tie up emergency lines,Carvajal said. If the caller has a real emergency,the call is instantly transferred to atrained operator.NONSENSE calls are a big concern,call-system director Rodolfo Jugo said,because despite its fancy equipment, thecenter is understaffed.The call center is designed for 18operators, but on some days there are asfew as nine, because of lack of funds andpersonnel, Jugo said.He added that the call center’s phonesystem will not hang up on a caller, nomatter how long the wait time.“If the person is impatient – and weunderstand that, if he or she is in badhealth, for example – sometimes theydon’t wait,” he said. “The advice wouldbe to stay on the line.”Carvajal said the maximum wait timeshould be approximately 30 seconds, andis usually much less.According to Guendel, the FinanceMinistry is considering the call center’srequest for at least 14 additional operators.However, he said he expects the process totake months, if not years.


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