New Legislation Attempting V.I. Fire Service, E.M.S Merger Panned at Senate, Called ‘A Fiasco’
For years it has been said that a merger between the Virgin Islands Fire Service and Emergency Medical Services, a division of the V.I. Dept. of Health, would be beneficial to the territory, with proponents of a merger believing it would speed up response times in instances of medical emergencies.
But the latest proposed measure, another attempt at V.I.F.S./EMS merger, still has a number flaws, argued lawmakers Thursday during a Committee of the Whole meeting. Some of the issues, said the senators, include lack of union and employee involvement in shaping the legislation and selfsame ideas with a previous bill and a failed implementation effort.
After testimonies from invited testifiers, Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory said that during the 2021 State of the Territory Address, Governor Albert Bryan said it was critical for this merger to take place to improve response time.
Senator Novelle Francis said, “Let me state for the record, three governors: John P. De Jongh, Governor Kenneth Mapp and Governor Albert Bryan recommended some consolidation of the E.M.S and Fire. That’s six legislative bodies since then had consideration of this proposal at some point. Whether it’s going to be an executive order or some other means, something is going to happen in regards to this.”
While the latest proposal is similar to merger Bill No. 33-0271 sent to the 33rd Legislature by Mr. Bryan, the latest measure did not have a bill number assigned to it as it was merely proposed legislation, which Ms. Frett-Gregory made clear on several occasions during the hearing.
“We talked about his merger since February 2020 and we are still talking about the guiding principles. The question we need to be clear on because I am not clear, do we have a true road map to support the merger?” asked the Senate president. V.I.F.S. Director Daryl A. George responded, “From what we have I think it’s the road map to integration along with the legislation, that’s what we have in our document — the way it’s going to be structured along with the legislation.”
Ms. Frett-Gregory expressed displeasure that the same concerns discussed at a previous hearing relative to issues with the merger had not been addressed in the latest proposal. “When the legislation was sent down to the 33rd Legislature and we had this very similar discussion in February of 2020, we expressed our concerns. The very same concerns that are being discussed today have previously been discussed.” Ms. Frett-Gregory said significant amendments should have been part of the new bill.
“It was obvious from the testimonies if I can be upfront and honest, that there was no discussion around significant portions of the legislation,” she said.
The main problem discussed by nearly every senator was a major gap in communication between the executive branch of government and the unions.
Senator Dwayne Degraff, who was a former first responder, mentioned that this was the same problem with the version of the bill that was sent down in the 32nd Legislature roughly five years ago. “The problem I had with it in the Mapp administration was lack of communication with the union members. The union members are the ground individuals who are out there doing the work.”
Senator Kenneth Gittens’s sentiments were similar. “The concept is a good one, the approach is bad.”
Senator Samuel Carrion stated, “We are still missing pieces that are very important to this legislation and also the lack of details in many areas. Additionally, I am concerned about the resistance and the lack of inclusion of our E.M.S. professionals and not only them, the unions in the conversation. They are not at the table and this is clearly the issue we’ve been hearing for years now and I think if we bring all the stakeholders to the table, this translation could go much smoother.”
Ms. Frett-Gregory added, “The mere fact the unions are having these types of discussions as it relates to not knowing means that we have not had a true merger and acquisition discussion, and absent of that this is a fiasco. It is not going to go anywhere [so long as] the communication is very much lacking.”
Senator Janelle Sarauw opened her remarks by stating, “Today’s discussion is quite daft and as I continue to read the legislation again, it causes me much consternation as there has been no amendments made to this legislation from the previous legislature.”
Two other issues pointed out in the bill was the unilateral authority of the Dept. of Health commissioner and a proposed board believed to be unconstitutional as bills concerning boards must be proposed singularly.
The measure was described as “severely flawed.” Ms. Sarauw added, “At this time with this legislation we can’t barter with people’s lives in the name of politics.”
Kurt Vialet stated, “You got to sit with the union and sell them on the idea. I am in support of the merger but not with a bill that is flawed; this is too important to just get it done, it must be done right. This is people’s lives we are talking about.”
Ms. Frett-Gregory said in closing remarks, “It is clear that we are experiencing a serious communication issue, that the bill is significantly flawed and there is much more work to do.”
She asked for a commitment from the executive branch to do work on the measure because, “It’s not good enough to submit legislation that is as flawed as this one to this body and expect the leaders to sit and work on all of these amendments. There must be some responsibility placed on the executive branch.”
Both D.O.H. Commissioner Justa Encarnacion and Mr. George, the V.I. Fire Service director, committed to making improvements.
E.M.S. personnel have long had concerns with a merger. In July 2016, they took to the streets in protest after a Mapp proposed measure sought to combine their division with the V.I. Fire Service. The protest, however, highlighted a number of other grievances — from lack of adequate pay to being understaffed. Watch the video below.
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