V.I. Fire Services is preparing to absorb Emergency Medical Services this year, which should ultimately help provide more emergency services more efficiently but accounts for a large budget increase this year, Fire Services Director Steve Brow testified in Senate budget hearings Tuesday.
Brow said the merger should be completed by October, with a goal to cross-train firefighters as EMTs. Once in place, the change should allow for faster response time and more efficient operations, he said.
St. Thomas/St. John Fire Chief Andre Smith said he supported the merger but warned that cross-training was no substitute for sufficient funding and personnel.
"What needs to be understood is both Fire Services and EMS are understaffed right now," Smith said. While cross training will improve efficiency and help spread around staffing and first responders, a firefighter cannot do both jobs at the same time, so both will often be needed, he said.
"As much as we think we can do both disciplines at once, you just can’t," Smith said.
Fire Services officials defended the department’s Fiscal Year 2014 recommended General Fund budget of $21.6 million. That is a $6.2 million increase from FY13, mostly due to absorbing the personnel costs of EMS, which previously had been within the Department of Health.
Wages and salaries comprise $14.5 million; Social Security, Medicare and benefits another $6 million; other services and charges $754,000; and $402,000 for utilities.
Fire Services anticipates another $1.9 million from fees, fines and other unappropriated funds for a total budget of $23.5 million.
Also in budget hearings, V.I. Chief Labor Negotiator Valdemar Hill testified in support of the Office of Collective Bargaining’s budget request of $611,000. Hill said the entire budget is to come from the Union Arbitration Award and Government Employee Increment Fund.
Personnel wages and salaries account for $370,000 of that, and Social Security, Medicare and benefits another $141,000, for 83.7 percent of the budget. The budget also anticipates $76,000 for "other services," such as communications, custodial services and various professional services. Utilities comprise $15,000 or 2.4 percent of the budget.
While saying the budget was sufficient for the agency, Hill testified there had been an unprecedented increase in the number of grievances filed by unions challenging recent employee dismissals and government’s nonpayment of contractual salary increases due to adverse economic conditions. As of May 31, there were 150 cases pending resolution via the arbitration process, and 29 unfair labor practice charges pending before the Public Employees Relations Board, Hill said.
“Our relationships with union representatives and labor unions require continuous dialog to find ways to improve our communication, appreciation and understanding of each other’s roles and common objectives,” Hill said.
The government is currently party to 29 collective bargaining agreements negotiated with 13 exclusive unions. Only eight of the agreements are current; the rest extended on a day-to-day basis by agreement of both parties.