Senators Express Concerns About Merger of Fire and Emergency Services

A Virgin Islands Fire Service truck is driven down the waterfront on St. Thomas. (Source photo by Bethaney Lee)

Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. said Wednesday the merging of Emergency Medical Services with the Fire Service in the territory could be a smooth transition, but he and other senators expressed concerns about it being “done right.”

Jenifer O’Neal, director of the Office of Management and Budget, outlined to senators how the process would work from her department’s view as she testified on a bill introduced by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.

She said the bill would establish the Emergency Medical Services and then incorporate it into the V.I. Fire Service, creating the V.I. Fire and Emergency Medical Services.

Presently, according to O’Neal, the Emergency Services and the Fire Service have a combined 2020 budget of $27.4 million. Those funds are allotted through the Department of Health budget.

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She said Health will not be financially shortchanged in any way as adjustments will be made within all the funding sources available. She said her department supports the transition because the merger will “ensure the efficient use of the territory’s emergency resources and lowers the response time to emergencies, which is of utmost importance.”

She noted the budget includes planning for the merger, designating $75,000 for EMS training within the Fire Service appropriation.

Most of the positions identified in the bill already exist, however some titles might change. The 33rd Legislature gave the Fire Service an additional $410,000 to fund a training coordinator, medical director and assistant director of EMS in this fiscal year. The Fire Service has filled the assistant director EMS position.

Sen. Alicia Barnes said details of the rollout of the merger gave her pause. Although no senator expressed opposition to the merger, several senators had questions about who would be in charge at emergency scenes and how things like seniority and pay scales would be worked out equitably.

Francis said senators had heard concerns from employees in both entities about what the merger would mean to them.

Daryl George Sr., director of the Fire Service, responded saying that there were people who “sit back and criticize” but “don’t bring anything to the table.”

“Providing EMS through the Fire Service makes sense because fire stations are strategically located throughout the island communities to provide a rapid response,” George said. “Fire departments are essentially standing armies in their communities poised to respond to an emergency. However, in an era of fewer structural fires and growing numbers of medical emergencies, adding EMS delivery to Fire capabilities is the next logical step. Faster response times translate into better patient outcomes. As fire operations are geared to rapid response, the Fire Service’s participation in pre-hospital medical tiered response will be a significant benefit to the public.”

Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said she had concerns about another proposed bill discussed during the Senate Committee of the Whole session Wednesday. It would allow the operation of private ambulance services in the territory. She said that bill would affect the income of the territory’s two hospitals. The two hospitals have faced financial problems in recent years.

“Let’s work out the kinks,” said Sen. Kenneth Gittens in his closing remarks at the hearing. No vote was taken at the information gathering session.

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