Aug. 3, 2003 Lack of manpower remains the greatest obstacle to reopening the Dorothea fire station, according to government officials. But North Side residents and union leader Daryl A. George disagree. They believe inappropriate priorities, lack of understanding and ineffective management are the true stumbling blocks.
After a two-and-a-half-hour meeting Saturday night at Palms Court Harborview Hotel, residents weren't buying the explanation of Fire Service director Ian Williams Sr. He said even if the Fire Service had the budget to staff the recently reopened and then closed again fire station on the island's North Side, it doesn't have the bodies to staff it.
"Our voices don't seem to resonate with our leaders," community activist Jason Budsan, said, citing hiring chauffeurs and buying SUV's as the apparent priorities of government leaders. "The basic needs of a community are fire, health care, police," he said. "It only takes 10 minutes for a home to burn down, and if it takes 20 minutes to get there, you have a problem."
Sitting on the panel of officials were Sen. Lorraine Berry, a resident of the North Side; Ira Mills, Office of Management and Budget director; Williams and James O'Bryan Jr., St. Thomas-St. John-Water Island administrator.
Berry suggested the station be staffed during daytime hours when traffic is heavy, making a trip to the North Side by a fire truck a slow process, and when residents are at work. She projected the cost at around $150,000 - or one-third of the $440,000 that three shifts would cost for a year.
Williams and Mills said five firefighters being called to active duty with the V.I. National Guard, coupled with the retirement of six others, caused the manpower shortage. But George, president of Local 2125 of the International Association of Firefighters, called that "baloney."
George said, "We have squads enough to open; we don't have enough supervisors."
Mills said another problem with staffing the outlying stations was that the Fire Service is already $83,492 over budget on its overtime costs for the year.
But George said overtime costs have come down dramatically from a high of $45,000 in November of 2000 to $6,000 in a comparative month last year. He sees communication, lack of effective management and lack of understanding as the biggest problems.
Grants could help, but are not always a panacea
George said if Emergency Medical Services were merged with the Fire Service, substantial money would become available from grants.
"Merging EMS and Fire could be one of the greatest" moves to accessing funds, he said. "You mean to tell me the people in management can't get these issues resolved?"
Williams acknowledged a need to move in that direction but insisted that the bodies aren't available.
Mills said "there is no point in training firefighters" if the government is not "able to identify full-year funding to hire them."
Discussion of grants continued, moving to the area of federal homeland security funds. Several people, including Tony Cyntje, chief of oversight on homeland security in Berry's office, said that federal money can't be used to pay for personnel.
The Law Enforcement Planning Commission has already received $6 million in grant money, Berry said, but there is no single office responsible for administering the grant funds.
George also noted the restrictions on homeland security grants. "If you are given a Hazmat [hazardous materials protection] suit and you use it for anything other than against weapons of mass destruction, the V.I. government will have to pay for it," he said.
O'Bryan said the states are crying because, although money has been appropriated for homeland security, no funds have actually been received the money, and in general they can be used only for training and equipment anyway.
Volunteers not the answer
One of the two dozen residents who showed up for the meeting, Joseph Charles, said, "I came here for a simple reason — to find out if there's anything that can be done so, when I go to bed tonight and I see smoke in my living room, I know who to call."
There were offers to create a volunteer fire service, but George was clear that he was "not going to be supporting any volunteers." He said, "Right now the problem we have with overtime is because we don't have enough supervisors," he repeated.
Williams said that he had called meetings on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John to discuss a volunteer program, but only two people had shown up. None of the residents present on Saturday had heard about those meetings, however.
Williams said he would entertain a proposal from the group on how to set up a volunteer program, but George was adamant that he would not work with volunteers. After the meeting, the union leader said a big concern with volunteers is "liability." A volunteer who is hurt can sue the government, he said.
Volunteer fire services, he said, work for rural areas with small populations, not areas as populated as the Virgin Islands, he said.
Prevention is the cure
"Fire prevention begins in your home," Williams told the group, adding that his agency's Fire Prevention Unit is available to check homes for potential fire hazards. "Fire prevention is our first mandate," he said.
And island topography would suggest he is correct. Narrow, steep, winding roads — especially on the North Side — are difficult, if not impossible, for fire trucks to navigate.
"We have cried out about the roads being approved," Williams said. "Whoever it is that authorizes the roads needs to make sure they are wide enough."
Charles said, "The truck at the Dorothea station isn't going to come close to where I live. We need equipment that is tailored for our needs."
Money as an issue
The Fire Service is not the only agency crying out for personnel. Mills said money for hiring has to be "spread out over a lot of areas."
On Friday, Police Commissioner Elton Lewis told Berry's Homeland Security Committee that the Police Department is short 62 officers of its authorized strength. (See "Lewis cites officer shortage among problems".)
Mills said he had released only half of the fourth-quarter allotments up to this week. He said it was no secret that the Virgin Islands has fiscal problems. "We have been indicating to the general public our state of fiscal affairs," he said. But, he said, "We have to move forward; we are dedicated to serving the public."
Berry said North Siders, who pay large property tax bills, should be getting essential services in return.
Mills countered that the government has been unable under a court ruling to collect those property taxes. However, that issue is recent, going back only a few months.
The Dorothea fire station was reopened in June 2002 after the civic organization brought pressure on the government. The tax issue came up only a few months ago, when District Judge Thomas K. Moore imposed a ban on the collection and billing of property taxes until the government's flawed tax assessment process is reformed.
After the meeting, Williams said he was going to look into using the money that would no longer be needed to pay the five firefighters called to active duty with the National Guard.
Mills agreed to meet with George, who said the issues could easily be ironed out if management would sit down and work with him. Mills and Williams agreed that Berry's plan for staffing the station for one shift a day had merit.
But residents remained dissatisfied with the dialogue. Many expressed cynicism about the answers they were given.
Budsan asked why "we have to go hunting for mon
ey for essential services" while money is found for other things. "We're really in trouble not having the most basic services," he said.
"I am really upset," Ann Durante-Arnold, Northside Civic Organization president, said after the meeting. "I feel like we got the runaround."
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