The Police Department, Fire Service and Bureau of Corrections are all currently short-staffed and taking extra steps to increase recruitment even as government budgets are cut, agency officials reported to the Senate’s Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee on Tuesday.
Despite tight budgets, representatives from all three agencies said they are forced to spend extra on overtime to maintain staffing levels.
Police Commissioner Delroy Richards told the committee the department has 118 officers eligible to retire this year and 16 more will become eligible next year. And it has struggled for a decade or more to recruit enough local applicants who go on to pass the entrance examination and complete training, he said.
On St. Croix, there is a class of recruits and training should begin in April or early May, but St. Thomas will not have a class of recruits training until at least June, he added.
To help, Richards said the Police Department needs a "stable recruitment budget" every year. One idea would be for VIPD to work with the Office of Personnel to "analyze the police officer’s written exam to identify problematic questions that a large percentage of the applicants fail."
He also suggested another idea would be to "create a standardize exam for all peace officers in the territory" that could be administered by the Peace Officer Standardized Training Council, so that recruiting could go on continuously.
Fire Service Director Eugene Farrell said his agency needs staffing and new equipment. Gov. Kenneth Mapp promised to hire more firefighters during the election campaign and in keeping with that, the department has "begun the hiring process" to bring on 36 new firefighters to join the 195 current fire suppression staff, Farrell said.
The V.I. Fire Service has reestablished its training division by hiring a deputy fire chief of training, he said.
Fire Service jobs involve a lot of training, but are also highly sought after, so there is never a shortage of applicants, Farrell said. Obstacles are rather a long lag time for training, a lot of applicants who do not pass the tests, and a large training cost for employees who may not all work out.
Having would-be firefighters take classes at the University of the Virgin Islands instead of at Fire Services would save the department a lot of money and save recruits and the department a lot of time, he said.
To that end, Farrell has spoken with UVI officials about setting up classes in a manner similar to what some stateside jurisdictions have done with local universities. He is meeting later this month with Ilene Garner at UVI’s Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning center about moving forward with the plan.
"This plan would reduce the time needed to train a probationary firefighter and moreover reduce the training cost to the government of the Virgin Islands," Farrell said. "It currently cost us approximately $15,000 in salary and fringe benefits to train a probationary firefighter in the 16-week program," he said.
Dwayne Benjamin, acting director of the Bureau of Corrections, testified that his department needs more "boots on the ground" to come into compliance with court settlement agreements to improve conditions in the territory’s prison on St. Croix and the smaller detention facility on St. Thomas.
"Frankly, inadequate staffing levels inhibit compliance under the security provision of the settlement agreements," Benjamin said, while emphasizing that he believed Corrections had made substantial progress towards compliance.
"The bureau needs more boots on the ground. … Excessive overtime leads to burnout, unsafe and poor work performance," he said.
"To address this issue, I have requested an exemption from the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council regarding the participation of new corrections recruits and cadets in the V.I. Police Department’s training academy," he said. Currently it requires eight months of training but generally in the prison "industry" training lasts about four months, Benjamin said.
If this council grants the exemption, Corrections will be able to run two consecutive training sessions in the time the VIPD training academy holds one training session, he said.
No votes were taken at the information-gathering oversight hearing.