ST. CROIX— Members of the Committee on Health, Hospitals and Human Services met at the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room to consider Bill No. 34-0101- An Act amending the Virgin Islands Code Title 3 chapters 1 and 15, title 23, chapter 7 and Title 33, section 3032 to create a new Virgin Islands Fire and Emergency Medical Services to provide fire prevention services, fire suppression services emergency medical services, and for the protection of life and property. The measure was sponsored by Senate President, Donna Frett-Gregory on behalf of the Governor. Senate President Frett-Gregory said the bill had been previously submitted in the 33rd, and earlier in the 34th Legislature by Governor Albert Bryan, Jr.
At the outset of the meeting, Chairman Francis stated that he has held and chaired several meetings with stakeholders because all sides in the integration plan needed to be heard. “While we may not all agree on the details of Bill No. 34-0101, what we can all agree on is that we are all committed to ensure the best quality of emergency care and services to the Virgin Islands community,” Francis said.
Marise C. James Esq, former Policy Advisor for Justice and Public Safety from the Office of the Governor spoke on the bill. Attorney James mentioned that it was necessary to transfer the skilled EMS personnel to the new Virgin Islands Fire and Emergency Medical Services. James stated that there were fewer structural fires, and more medical emergencies, stating that the integration would allow for better usage of resources. Daryl George, Director of the Virgin Islands Fire Service also voiced support of the bill. He stated that it was the next step in the evolution of the Fire Services. George mentioned that when the Fire Service was established in 1979, it was solely for fire suppression services. Furthermore, the merger would reduce response time and result in better utilization of EMS Services. Lisle Evelyn, the Fire Service Assistant Director of EMS agreed that such a combined EMS and Fire Services would improve response times in the territory. Evelyn noted that the public expects an appropriate response time.
The Director of Management and Budget, Jenifer O’Neal also expressed support of the bill. She stated that both EMS and Fire Service are undermanned, which has cost the government approximately $20 million in overtime pay since 2015, with some employees making over $50,000 in overtime pay. Director O’Neal affirmed that a combined EMS and Fire Service would put the US Virgin Islands on par with other jurisdictions in the United States mainland. Senator Marvin Blyden, vice chair of the committee, voiced his support of the legislation. He mentioned concerns over EMS and Fire Services unions. Both Director George and Chief Negotiator Springette stated that the unions had met, and had seen draft legislation of the merger, and that no major concerns were introduced.
Chair of the committee, Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr. voiced his concerns over what would be expected of the merged department in mass casualty events, stating that memorandums of understanding/agreements should exist so that it is known what is expected. Commissioner of Health Justa Encarnacion reiterated that VITEMA has a mass causality plan, and the director of the agency, Daryl Jaschen would make sure that communication continues.
Sponsor of the bill, Senate President Frett-Gregory spoke about earlier conversations pertaining to grandfathering certain employees in the newly merged entity. She asked how they were comfortable with having that conversation, stating that it was a problem because of the severity of the scope of work that is done in EMS and Fire Services. Senator Frett-Gregory also expressed concern over a class of Fire Service recruits that had not passed an EMR certification testing, and that they were told they would be terminated if they did not pass the test. Director George revealed that it was not mentioned in their contracts that they had to pass that test. Senator Frett-Gregory stated that the stress should be lifted from that recruit class.
Senator Blyden questioned the timeline of the transition of the potentially combined service. Director George reiterated that the new agency would come into effect 180 days after passage of the bill. Bill No. 34-0101 was favorably approved as amended and will be sent to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary.
In her closing remarks, sponsor of the legislation, Senate President Donna A. Frett-Gregory thanked Senator Francis for his tireless work on the bill. “I thank Senator Francis and his staff for their hard work on this bill. They worked long and hard on this legislation and they deserve the credit on a job well done,” the Senate President concluded.
Senators present at today’s meeting were Novelle E. Francis Jr, Marvin A. Blyden, Samuel Carrión, Kenneth L. Gittens, Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Alma Francis Heyliger, Janelle K. Sarauw, and Steven D. Payne Sr. Senator Kurt A. Vialet was excused.