911 Cell Phone Calls Answered on Wrong Island

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are so close to each other that emergency calls from cell phones on one island are going to operators on another, slowing responses, officials said Monday.

"There may be a delay. We're concerned with that," said Mark Walters, USVI emergency management director.

Walters met with officials in Puerto Rico last week to draw up rules for Puerto Rico operators to stay on the line and reroute any 911 call from the U.S. Virgin Islands back to that territory.

St. Thomas is just 47 miles east of Puerto Rico and has fewer cell towers, so 911 calls are sometimes picked up by bilingual operators in Puerto Rico who answer in Spanish, adding to the confusion of English speakers in the Virgin Islands.

People in St. Thomas roughly make more than 6,800 emergency calls a month, and less than a dozen are picked up by operators in Puerto Rico, said Paul Arnold Jr., acting director of the USVI Bureau of Information Technology.

Most of those calls are about stranded ships, said Javier Erazo, 911 operations director.

The solution ultimately requires cell phone companies to expand their coverage, Arnold said. He has requested that AT&T, Sprint and Centennial Wireless broaden their service, especially in St. Thomas.

He said none has yet agreed to build new towers, however.

"It'll be a cost to the company, and that's something they're going to have to look at," he said.

Neither Sprint nor AT&T, which recently bought New Jersey-based Centennial Communications Corp., responded to requests for comment.

USVI Gov. John deJongh said the temporary agreement should help ensure that emergency needs of visitors and residents — especially those in remote areas — are met.