There is a New Way of Handling Island Emergencies
At the beginning the WhatsApp Roatan911 group served as a community crime watch resource for residents of French Cay and French Harbour. For the last two years it has become a department wide operation. The group has helped in over a dozen sea rescues, hundreds of med-evacs, hundreds of traffic accidents and assisted in crime fighting. “Many times I thought of quitting,” says Garcia, who doesn’t take any salary for his service. Garcia says his inspiration came from Bob McNab: “he was always there to rescue people, help. He was there when the hill caught on fire. He didn’t know I was watching him, but this is how I got inspired.”
To date, the Roatan911 group has coordinated about a dozen rescues at sea and several people owe their lives to their efforts. Over time dozens of professionals joined in. There is a team of flight control operators from Tegucigalpa to Roatan, there are doctors, private airline pilots and authorities helping in emergencies. “I contact the Honduran Navy, Honduran Air Force and they never tell me no,” says Garcia. “Sometime they have to get up at 3 am to go to the scene of an accident.”
Roatan911 has plenty of people listening: the Cayman Islands Coast Guard, the Guatemalan Navy, the Bay Islands Police Chief, the Honduran Minister of Tourism and three of the four Bay Islands mayors. Garcia even forwards some of the more critical cases to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández. “Steven has the president’s ear,” says Shawn Hyde, a French Harbour businessman. Garcia phone keeps beeping every 10-15 seconds. He glances at it casually, scrutinizing the level of importance of the message. Garcia does all the emergency coordination on a Samsung smart phone with a cracked screen. In 2017 Garcia ran for the Bay Islands congressional seat and came in second. “I love politics. Politics helped me help a lot of people,” says Garcia.
I am trying to do things the right way, by the way I was raised
Still, the majority of heavy lifting is done by regular folks who put in their time and their resources to save lives and help. In January, when an oxygen tank explosion on the Utila Cays killed one person and badly injured another, dozens of Utilians woke up in the middle of the night. They lined up 50 motorcycles to light up the dark Utila landing strip allowing for the emergency flight to evacuate the wounded man.
The other area addressed by the group has been crime. Several robberies were being broadcast live via WhatsApp and police reaction time could be scrutinized minute by minute. Locals can also be involved to track the suspects after the robbery. When Cal’s Cantina restaurant on the east side of the island was robbed at 9am on July 24 the crime was broadcast live via the East911 WhatsApp security group. Local residents provided descriptions of the robbers and their vehicle and supported Carl Husbands, the owner, throughout the ordeal. “It took them [police] two minutes to respond, but 20 minutes to get here,” says Carl Husbands, who’s guard ended up in the hospital.
WhatsApp 911 has caused a small revolution in how crime is handled and emergencies fallowed up by the authorities. Police, firemen, coast guard actions can be scrutinized, commented on and praised. This has caused a considerable improvement in reaction time to crime, and flow of information between islanders and police.
The 911 voice emergency lines are not trusted by many islanders. “When you call 911 [phone] number, you have no idea what the person on the other side of the line will do,” says Hyde. A 911 phone call is picked up in San Pedro Sula and it takes as long as 15 minutes for this call be transferred to authorities in Roatan. “The 911 is obsolete,” says Garcia.
Garcia says he takes special care to scrutinize who becomes part of the group as criminals could join the group and extract valuable information. One person was found to be passing the information to criminals. “Thanks God we got him out [from Roatan911],” says Garcia, who was raised Pentecostal and says that faith and moral values keep him helping people. “I am trying to do things the right way, by the way I was raised,” says Garcia.
The Facebook-owned WhatsApp offers message and phone call encryption. There are 1.5 billion people using WhatasApp on a monthly basis. In India’s south WhatsApp groups have saved lives coordinating rescue during the August foods, but, curiously, the Bay Islands are the only Honduran locale using WhatsApp for security and rescue needs. With all its advantages the WhatsApp has its limitations especially in group membership – 256 to be exact. Creating a custom app would cost money Garcia doesn’t have. So he just decided just to keep adding groups: there are twelve 911 groups all over the Bay Islands. WhatsApp is not just good software. Thanks to the steady pressure on the mainland officials the archipelago department received an ambulance truck and an air ambulance that is stationed in Tegucigalpa, but used regularly to evacuate medical emergencies off the Bay Islands. “The families pay for the fuel and for the poor the Municipality pitches in,” says Garcia.
Garcia says that currently the biggest need for the islands as far as sea rescue capabilities is a twin motor rescue boat operated by islanders that could be moved on the back of a trailer. “When I get lost at sea who is going to look for me?,” says Garcia. He is not likely worried, as there are plenty of people who owe Steven a debt of gratitude.