911 Operator Shortage Continues, Senators Learn; National Guard Stands Ready for Potential Emergency Response Operations
Apart from concerns regarding tsunami sirens, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety also heard on Tuesday about the ongoing shortage of 911 dispatchers across the territory.
Per the VI Code, the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency maintains the 911 Emergency System. The dispatchers are funded through the Government of the Virgin Islands and are represented by a United Steelworkers Collective Bargaining Unit.
According to VITEMA, there are not enough dispatchers in either district, even after significant efforts to fill the nine vacancies on St. Thomas and five on St. Croix.
“It’s been a struggle finding qualified candidates,” remarked Merlinda Philomene, deputy director of Human Resource and Labor Relations at VITEMA.
Ms. Philomene told lawmakers that a hiring exercise for St. Croix yielded only four applicants, three of whom did not meet the required qualifications. As a result, only one additional 911 operator has been added to the St. Croix team in recent times.
Despite these difficulties, a bright spot for VITEMA was the award of $22.5 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for work on VITEMA’s Hazard and Mitigation Wind Retrofit and Saferoom project.
Once completed, the Saferoom, VITEMA Executive Director Daryl Jaschen explained, will house the agency’s staff offices on St. Croix, an emergency operations center and the 911 Emergency Communications Centre at Hermon Hill, part of the Hermon Hill Hazard Mitigation Capital project. The overarching project will identify strategies and actions that can be taken — construction of the Saferoom being one of those actions — before a disaster strikes, to significantly reduce human suffering, property damage and the long-term economic impacts of natural hazards.
The saferoom project currently stands at 30 percent completion, according to Mr. Jaschen. He alerted senators that the FEMA funds do not extend as far as covering furniture, fixtures, fencing, landscaping, or equipment. For those needs, VITEMA has already approached the Bryan administration for supplemental funding in the 2024 budget, and is also exploring support options from federal agencies.
Mr. Jaschen spoke alongside Major General Kodjo S. Knox-Limbacker, Adjutant General and Commander of the Virgin Islands National Guard (VING) to provide the committee with overviews of their department’s operations, capital projects, and other initiatives.
With respect to hurricane season preparation, MG Knox-Limbacker said the V.I. National Guard continues to maintain “a heightened state of readiness” in the event the need for mobilization arises. He said there were adequate numbers of recall officers who can be summoned to the USVI in time of disaster, for wartime or Territorial Active Duty (TAD), to support local emergency response operations.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Clayton Sutton, commander of the V.I. National Guard team said the Major has recall authority to summon any of the 608 (548 Army, 60 AirGuard) units that may be on an external mission in any event that requires “all hands on deck”.
In addition, he said VING has emergency contract agreements with other states on the U.S. mainland to deploy soldiers to the territory five days before any potential impacts.
“Our supporting states are alerted well in advance if we suspect that we’re going to experience any deficiency…whether it’s personnel or it’s equipment,” he noted.
“While we’re not able to, like other states, have supporting states marshal at the border and just roll in, these supporting states will know… and we can and will, receive priority in airlift to get those personnel in,” Lt. Col. Sutton added.
“This is particularly heightened during every hurricane season. As a part of these efforts, we are actively engaged in exercising our response and recovery posture,” he noted.
In March, the V.I. National Guard will host its annual All Hazards Coordination Workshop as it continues to strengthen its relationships between the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), local and federal partners.
MG Knox-Limbacker said that the discussion agenda includes Point of Distribution (POD) planning, emergency medical evacuation and Immediate Response Team planning and placement.
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