WARREN COUNTY, N.J. -- A situation in which communication was lost twice between Warren County's 911 center and emergency personnel in Phillipsburg has angered officials, who say the phone company initially stonewalled them and that ambulances could have been delayed getting to seriously injured victims.
After the communication failures between the 911 center and emergency personnel in Warren County's most populous town, someone from the communications center in Franklin Township had to drive to Phillipsburg to help dispatch emergency crews for up to five hours on April 19 and April 23.
In addition, static on the line was so thick earlier this month that emergency personnel had a difficult time hearing dispatchers clearly.
"It's serious stuff," Freeholder Director John DiMaio said. "We didn't have any calls that we missed, we didn't have anything happen. But had the timing been bad, somebody's life was at stake."
DiMaio spelled out a worst-case scenario: "My grandmother from Phillipsburg calls for an ambulance. We get the call at the center, we put it out and we don't know they (emergency personnel) didn't get it. And they never go."
The problem - which county officials blamed on a faulty Verizon computer card - appears to have been corrected.
"There was a wiring issue with the circuits that has since been resolved," Verizon spokeswoman Stefanie Scott said yesterday from Austin, Texas. "We had detected static on the line and, with the permission of the customer, we took the circuit down for about an hour to repair it."
"It is fully operational," she continued. "We are not aware of any public safety issues associated with the incident, and we'll continue to work with the county to do whatever is necessary to make sure the system is working properly."
County officials remain leery.
Last summer, county Director of Public Safety David P. Gallant fired off a letter to Verizon's chief operating officer detailing communication failures over the previous 10 months.
Phillipsburg Mayor Harry Wyant also has been vocal about why it is so important for a communications center to be able to communicate.
"They denied it, denied it, denied it," DiMaio said of Verizon.
Verizon representatives suggested the problem was at the county's end, before recently admitting it was on Verizon's end, DiMaio said.
"They're not proving to be a very reliable public safety partner," Gallant said.
Phillipsburgtwo years ago joined the county's 911 center, and there is not yet a direct microwave radio link between the town and the communications center. Workers at the 911 center communicate with emergency personnel in Phillipsburg through the Verizon line.
A longer term solution, expected to cost up to $500,000, would connect the communications center and Phillipsburg through radio waves.
The communications center does all of the emergency dispatching in the county except for the State Police, which does its own dispatching.
Given the sensitive nature of many of the calls, avoiding communications breakdowns is particularly vital, Gallant said.
"There," he said, "is not a lot of margin for error here."