March 20, 2003 – The telephone network switch that routes all 911 emergency calls from St. Croix has been unstaffed during the early morning hours for "quite some time," according to testimony by two Innovative Telephone employees before the Public Services Commission Thursday.
Innovative worker and United Steelworkers' Union member Arthur Joseph submitted a letter to the commission outlining his claim that the phone company made a "conscious managerial decision" not to have anyone at the switch from midnight to 8 a.m. on weekdays and from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weekends.
He wrote that "if the switch was to experience trouble or any malfunction of the 911 equipment that will necessitate the rerouting of 911 calls to another number, as it has in the past, 911 will not work for possibly 12 hours or until an employee comes to work or is notified of the outage."
Technician John Clenance testified that he believes the phone company's move is in response to the Steelworkers strike against Innovative earlier this year. "We're playing Russian roulette with the lives of people on St. Croix," he said. "I feel it's a retaliatory decision to keep as much employees out as long as possible."
No telephone company officials authorized to speak on the issue were at Thursday's PSC meeting. However, after taking a short break, Julio Brady, an Innovative attorney present on other business, returned with an explanation of the apparent discrepancy in monitoring.
Brady said the 911 system is computerized and is monitored 24 hours a day from St. Thomas. "We saw no immediate need for action," he said.
He also said there has never been an outage, alarm or failure of the system on St. Croix since 1999 when the present switch was installed. "Our position is that there's no problem here," he told the commission.
He charged that the testimony of Joseph and Clenance had more to do with a recent grievance they filed than with the safety of the 911 system. "It's no coincidence that the ones testifying are party to a grievance issue. This is an attempt to try and manage the company through the assignation of workers," he said.
According to Brady, monitoring of the computerized system from St. Thomas is sufficient, and a round-the-clock physical presence on St. Croix is unnecessary.
But Clenance disagreed, pointing out that there is no audible alarm on St. Thomas and an employee would have to be watching the computer monitor screen to see that there is a problem. "The alarm could be sitting there going off," he said, and an employee, tasked with other duties, could be unaware of it.
Clenance said the system failed on Feb. 9, 2001, and he urged the PSC to obtain the 911 logbook for that date. "I recorded it, because I worked that shift," he said. "What [Brady] is saying is not accurate; it's misleading."
Sen. Luther Renee, a non-voting member of the commission and a lawmaker representing the St. Croix district, said: "This is a serious situation we can't take lightly."
PSC member Jerris Browne concurred, adding that an escalating crime problem on St. Croix makes the situation particularly dangerous.
Commissioner member Alecia Wells made a motion to open a docket and investigate the matter.
"While we're at it, let's include all aspects of the level of service Vitelco provides," her colleague Verne David added. He said he recently waited three months for his telephone service to be connected. "I could have abused my authority," he said, "but I wanted to see what the average customer goes through."
David said the telephone customers "deserve nothing less than the level of service they pay for."
Present at the hearing were PSC members Browne, David, Valencio Jackson, Renee, Alric Simmonds and Wells. Not present were Desmond Maynard and the other non-voting member, Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone.

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