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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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Disaster Communication Plan Subject of Senate Hearing

In Thursday’s committee hearing on St. John, lawmakers approved three bills. (Photo by Judi Shimel)

Lawmakers met Thursday on St. John to consider a better way for emergency managers to communicate in times of disaster. A proposal that would allow trained volunteers to assist in that area was one of three bills approved by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety.

V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency Assistant Director Steve Deblasio led a panel of three testifiers speaking to Bill No. 35-0175. The measure, sponsored by Committee Chairman Kenneth Gittens, would authorize a team of volunteers to operate an auxiliary radio network before, during, and after a catastrophic event.

He was accompanied by the manager of the American Radio Relay League and a representative of a local volunteer network called VOAD. Both league manager Fred Kleber and St. John businesswoman Celia Kalousek are licensed ham radio operators. Kleber told lawmakers how running an effective auxiliary network can help emergency managers stay in touch when hurricanes and other disasters damage infrastructure that normal communications rely on.

“These contributions from the hams are quantifiable and are of a direct benefit to the territory,” Kleber said. But to protect those volunteers, he said, any law created should include Good Samaritan provisions. There would also have to be some cross-training between government responders and the volunteers to make sure the jargon they rely on is recognized by all.

Appeals for a unified approach also came from officials of the V.I. Division of Personnel during consideration of Bill No. 35-0086. That bill, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Dwayne DeGraff, would make background checks a requirement for information technicians handling confidential information or working in government data centers.

DeGraff said the measure is intended to keep sensitive information away from those who might misuse it. Sen. Diane Capehart, a non-committee member, offered an endorsement.

“It only takes one bad hire to jeopardize your entire department,” Capehart said. But Division of Personnel Director Cindy Richardson was among those encouraging a different approach.

Johnathan Tucker, deputy director of the Bureau of Information Technology, said putting background checks in the hands of the BIT would cost more than letting Personnel take charge. It may also put the agency at risk of violating anti-discrimination laws.

Gittens praised DeGraff and other committee members for thinking things over and coming up with amendments. The measure passed as amended.

Afterward, the sponsor expressed satisfaction. “I’m not trying to violate anyone’s laws, but a process has to be in place, in the law, going forward,” DeGraff said.

The third measure passed on Thursday would establish the Real Crime Center Centralized Crime Data System within the Virgin Islands Police Department. Capehart, the sponsor, said Bill No. 35-0131 would help police access real-time information to aid their investigations. “You have all these different kinds of technologies — you have ShotSpotters, the reader ID for your license plates, cameras — all of these things tie into a real-time crime center,” Capehart said.

As the measure moves towards further consideration in the Rules and Judiciary Committee and the full Senate, the sponsor said she is arranging some field trips for her colleagues to see similar systems in action on the U.S. mainland.

Sens Kenneth L. Gittens, Ray Fonseca, Angel L. Bolques Jr, Diane T. Capehart, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Alma Francis Heyliger, and Franklin D. Johnson attended Thursday’s hearing.

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