The Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (DCOGTA), which is constitutionally mandated with disaster management, has formed a task team to rationalise the country’s 1500 emergency contact numbers before the FIFA World Cup that starts in just 30 days, but it may be too late.
Cabinet last week authorised DCOGTA to pick up the pieces of a failed 11 year project by the Department of Communications (DoC) to establish a single “112” national emergency number as well as the department is setting up two Public Emergency Contact Centres (PECCs) for that purpose.
There are currently more than 350 emergency centres handling calls and dispatching for the country’s various police, ambulance and fire-fighting services.”The result is that South Africans have to know the telephone numbers of every emergency service provider in the country in the event of a specific emergency,” former DOC spokesman Albi Modise told defenceWeb in March 2008. “The new 112 emergency service will integrate all the services on one number, thereby allowing for a single entry in emergency situations, irrespective of the nature of the emergency.
The number is also easy to dial for people with disabilities, as the numbers 1-1-2 are close to each other.”
At the time the plan was that the PECCs would be run as a public private partnership (PPP) and the DOC intended to appoint a private partner for the financing, design, management, maintenance and operating of the centres on behalf of the government. By then nearly all of SA’s big-name ICT and business continuity companies had requested qualification to tender, including Saab Grintek, Satyam Computer Services and Continuity SA. But no tender was ever awarded and the DoC became more and more reluctant to discuss either the tenders or the PECCs.
The DOC was – and remains – mandated by Section 76 of the Electronic Communications Act, on the books since 2005, to set up the centres (although the DCOGTA likely as a better constitutional mandate and claim to the task). The same section authorises the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) to issue regulations on aspects related to the centres, which was done in 2008. SA’s cellular providers already use the number for their emergency contact centres. The DOC has been tinkering with the PECC concept since 2002 and established a R80 million pilot contact centre at the Strand, near Somerset West, in 2004. That centre handled ambulance calls for the Cape metropole but is now being closed.
ITWeb reports the DCOGTA will now, in the time available, attempt to make existing police 10111 centres more efficient and effective, as part of its R54 million disaster management project; that according to ministry spokeswoman Vuyelwa Vika. This comes after plans to have a single national emergency number, 112, were abandoned with the closing of a R80 million pilot centre in the Western Cape.
By yesterday the DoC had again failed to respond to ITWeb queries as to why this centre was closed down and what stopped the establishment of a single national emergency number. “It was argued that there are more than 1500 emergency numbers in SA. For the purpose of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, it was confusing to subject visitors to too many numbers on emergency hotlines,” says Vika.
She explains that in a meeting held at the end of April, it was agreed that there would now be three emergency numbers – 10111, 10177 and 112 – published and promoted for the purpose of the World Cup.
Not good enough
Dr Cleeve Robertson, director of the Western Cape Emergency Medical Services (EMS) that benefitted from the PECC pilot, says this system will not be good enough because three numbers are still too many. He adds that it is now also too late to remedy the situation in time for the event. “The problem is that those numbers go to many different centres and there is poor cooperation between agencies. Calls get lost because of the poor system.”
The 112 number will be used by all mobile operators and, according to Vika, if any tourist dials 911, the call will be diverted to 112. “There is commitment from cellphone companies that they will not switch off from the caller until the caller has been assisted,” she adds. A database of various centres where assistance will be received, will be updated by all service providers, namely, Europa Assistance (MTN, business wing); ER24 (Cell C wing) and Vodacom (Nedcare/SOS associates), says Vika. She also says more staff members have been employed by all service providers and Telkom is having bilateral talks with other emergency units with regards to the rerouting of calls.
Vika explains that a database for all other emergency numbers will be jointly developed by DCOGTA and Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality. “The Department of Communications is currently in a process of developing a single emergency number but that process will not be ready before the 2010 Fifa World Cup,” adds Vika. Robertson sees this as a problem for the event. “It’s not working for us who live here, so why would it work for tourists?”
He adds that, instead of systems being put in place for one month, they should be designed for the use of everyday citizens who need these services on a long-term basis. “People do not access services because we don’t have a simple emergency number system, which through dialling 112 gets you through to a contact centre that can dispatch any emergency service within the shortest possible time.”
Robertson says the staff and centres for all three numbers should be consolidated and used for just a single number. “The resources are already deployed in the function by the different departments. They just have to pool all these resources to deliver on the system. The savings of taxpayers’ money would be huge.” He adds that it is too late to implement this for the World Cup, but it should be worked on for afterwards.
ITWeb adds various EMS have called for the implementation of a centralised emergency number (112) because responses from the 10111 centres are delayed and not always reliable. Parliament, the auditor-general and the public have also slammed the centres for being ineffective “and rendering SAPS services futile”. All commented that, despite using systems which digitally track the response of each police vehicle and record all communication with the caller, the police have continuously failed to improve on service delivery.
In response to a Democratic Alliance parliamentary question last year, the minister of police revealed the nationwide average response time to calls made to these centres is 42 minutes. Vika now says the department is doing its best to improve this response time.
Pic: A look at the police 10111 contact centre at Midrand, Gauteng