For the fourth time, the legislature was presented with a bill to merge the Fire Service and Emergency Medical Services. The bill ultimately received a favorable vote in the Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services, sending it on for further consideration.
According to Sen. Novelle Francis Jr., on October 23, 2019, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. submitted the bill to the Legislature, and it was heard by the Committee of the Whole in February 2020. On November 23, 2020, the bill was resubmitted by Governor Bryan and discussed by the Committee of the Whole in April 2021. A revised proposal was sent in July 2021. Now, it is on the way to adding a unit for EMS within the Fire Service.
“What is clear is that while we may not agree on the details of bill 34-0101, what we all can agree on is that we are all committed to ensuring that the best quality of emergency care and services is provided to the Virgin Islands community,” said Francis, who chaired the hearing.
Though the bill was sent unanimously to the Rules and Judiciary Committee, senators had a lot of questions about the wording and validity of the bill’s actions. Union rights, salaries, employee termination, and labor agreements were also discussed.
Attorney Marise James testified that the roles of a firefighter and emergency medical technician have evolved greatly over the last 70 years and that to officially recognize emergency medical service as one of the capabilities of the V.I. Fire Service, the merger would provide more resources for emergency response teams as there are “fewer fires and more medical emergencies” happening today.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens asked about the bill’s stated use of additional facilities in the case of emergencies and said he was concerned about whether correspondence had been made with medical facilities outside of hospital facilities, and whether it would be appropriate to send patients to them.
“If there is a mass casualty, these health centers sort of becoming our auxiliary emergency rooms, and depending on their proximity to the casualty, their proximity to the hospital, we’ll probably even dispatch doctors there,” said Fire Service Medical Director Robin Ellett.
“VITEMA (V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency) has a territorial operational plan, that includes all medical clinical agencies for mass casualty,” added Department of Health commissioner, Justa Encarnacion. She said communication will continue to be made with VITEMA director Daryl Jaschen to ensure effective planning.
Testimonies were provided that addressed how the merger would be economically beneficial to the government of the Virgin Islands as overtime hours, which are paid at a higher rate, will be decreased for employees. Sen. Alma Francis-Heyliger asked Office of Management and Budget Director Jennifer O’Neal about the amount of savings the government would incur as a result of the merger. O’Neal mentioned in her testimony that some employees make more than $50,000 in overtime per year. O’Neal did not provide an estimate to Heyliger-Francis but said, “We can assume that the $20 million dollars that we’ve spent over the last seven years will be significantly less.”
Some senators raised concerns about the termination of employees who do not pass the emergency medical training certification and licensure. Likewise, Andre Dorsey, president of the St. Thomas Firefighters Union expressed disdain about emergency medical requirements. Currently, firefighters are being required to complete emergency medical responder training. Fire Service Director Daryl George, said that the most recent onboarding classes will have to ensure that they pass emergency medical training. Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said the requirement should be lifted as it adds “stress” to new recruits. However, Chief Negotiator for the Office of Collective Bargaining Joss N. Springette said that the recruits will be given a probationary time to complete and pass all certifications and requirements before being employed as official firefighters.
Of recent recruits who are being subject to termination because they have not completed all requirements, Springette said, “They (the instructors) have extended themselves and gone above and beyond in order to assist those individuals in successfully completing this program because it not only benefits that individual, it benefits everyone one of us here the community.”
After much discussion, the bill was passed. It was mentioned that the merger will officially go into effect 180 days after the passing of the bill. It will be discussed next in the Rules and Judiciary committee.
Senators Marvin Blyden, Alma Francis-Heyliger, Novelle Francis Jr., Janelle Sarauw, Kenneth Gittens, Donna Frett-Gregory, Samuel Carrion, and Steven Payne were present. Senator Kurt Vialet was absent