The Virgin Islands Fire Department is getting new equipment, expanding its staff, and implementing trainings in an effort to better serve the public.
On Monday, the VIFD met with the 34th Legislature to provide updates on the department. Daryl A. George, Director of the VIFD, said the department continues to advance strategic objectives aimed at improving the effectiveness and efficiency of operations and continues to prepare for the Territory’s transition to a fire-based EMS system.
The VIFD has been working to merge with the Emergency Medical Services Division for more than ten years. Last year, the Senate voted to not advance bill no. 34-0101, which would combine both entities. The VIFD looks forward to the merge in order to cross-train firefighters to be EMS trained and certified.
Sen. Javan James asked the VIFD about the status of updates on the legislation and cooperation with all involved entities. Assistant Director Lisle Evelyn replied, “Our goal is to really implement a system that is based on best practice, rational consideration, and we’re not going to do anything that’s going to be contrary to what the evidence says in terms of how an EMS is supposed to be operating.” He added, “We’re all about building a relationship … Our goal is to build a system that we all can be proud of, based upon evidence and guidelines and data to support what we’re doing.”
Relating to equipment, Director George said that “One of our biggest challenges is funding to purchase the fire apparatus in a timely manner,” recalling working with outdated equipment even as a junior fighter. “For years, we always work with these older fleets of trucks, and by the time we buy new ones, the new ones end up being as old as the old ones.” He said that funding every five years for equipment will also cut back on repair costs.
George informed the body that the $1.5 million locally allocated dollars is currently being used to purchase five firetrucks. Two rescue vehicles are being purchased with a $237,000 grant from the Department of the Interior as well as four quick response vehicles from another grant award. All the vehicles are expected to be in the territory no later than December 2022. The department is also planning on purchasing a boat to assist with emergency services.
“Acquiring a boat will be one step toward establishing a marine unit within the Fire Service,” said George.
In addition, the department recently hired 25 firefighters in St. Croix and is anticipating hiring 20 firefighters in the St. Thomas-St. John district. Currently, there are 107 and 126 firefighters in each district, respectively. However, George noted that manpower is another challenge in the department, more particularly in St. John. He says funding for additional personnel would assist in adding employees who can, in turn, operate additional equipment.
Sen. Dwayne DeGraff inquired about the number of firefighters assigned to stations. Chief David Hodge said that in the STT-STJ district, “We have personnel assigned to the different stations according to the apparatus.” He added that “We would have upwards of six to seven personnel at the main stations … in the smaller satellite stations, we have three to four firefighters.”
Sen. Gittens inquired about updates at fire stations, particularly on St. Croix. He said that some were in “deplorable conditions” during his last visit. Assistant Director Antonio Stevens said that the department was awaiting funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency since 2019 to address the concerns but has since been utilizing local funds to mitigate the issues.
In addition, there are training and certification opportunities that will be available to firefighters. According to territorial training coordinator James Bolton, upcoming training for firefighters includes a plans review course, an arson, fire cause and investigation course, and a hazardous materials for inspectors course.
Senators present during the hearing were Steven Payne, Sr., Javan James Sr., Novelle Francis, Jr., Dwayne DeGraff, Franklin Johnson, Carla Joseph, and Alma Francis-Heyliger.