Aug. 8, 2007 — The V.I. Fire Service needs more firefighters, more equipment, more training and upgraded firehouses — and will get a bit of all of these over the upcoming year, Fire Chief Victor Browne told a receptive Senate Finance Committee Wednesday in Frederiksted.
Browne appeared to defend the Fire Services budget request for 2008 and outline his departments goals and needs.
The need for more firefighters is directly linked to a second problem the Fire Service is dealing with: rampant overtime. Browne said they need at least 30 new firefighters and that a group was about to start training.
"Training classes will begin in both districts shortly," Browne said, tentatively offering August 13 as the starting date. "The hiring of the new firefighters will help to reduce the large amount spent on overtime but will not bring the manning up to the ideal standards.
"As of the end of June this year we have spent approximately $306,406 for overtime when only $145,000 was budgeted. For fiscal year 2008 $135,000 has been budgeted."
With rapid development, particularly on St. Thomas and St. John, Browne said more and bigger equipment was needed.
"The Fire Service is not equipped to fight shipboard fires or to do water rescues," he said. "A fireboat in each district is a wonderful vision. Our buildings are getting taller and we do not have the firefighting capabilities for these rising structures. A ladder unit is no longer a fancy but a necessity."
Browne also ran down a list of problems with several fire stations and the slowly developing plans to renovate or move into new facilities.
Fire inspections for new businesses and for those renewing their licenses were also a concern. Every business is supposed to be inspected before opening and every two years thereafter, but Browne said he lacks the manpower to get to every single business due for inspection.
In response to questions from Sen. Liston Davis, Browne said
many businesses circumvent inspection and still get a license.
"That you use the word 'circumvent' tells me a lot," Davis said. "Are these uninspected buildings a hazard?"
"Yes," Browne said. He said the reasons are a lack of manpower, along with training and certification of inspectors.
Browne asked for a budget appropriation of $17.9 million from the general fund to the Fire Service, an increase of $227,000 over 2007. Of this, $16.7 million, or approximately 94 percent, is for personnel services and the remaining balance of $1.2 million is to cover the operating costs for the year. The total budget for the Fire Service also includes $579,000 from the Internal Revenue Matching fund, collected by the federal IRS and remitted to the territory, bringing the total appropriated funding to $18.4 million.
The Fire Service also receives just under $500,000 from inspection and other fees and from the Emergency Services Fund line item on territorial telephone bills. They expect their total budget from all local sources to be $18.9 million. There are also some federal funds, but those were not outlined at Wednesdays hearing.
The capital expenses for new trucks, fireboats and the like were not part of the budget request. Committee Chairman Terrence "Positive" Nelson said Gov. John deJongh Jr. would be submitting a separate budget specifically for capital projects at a later time. The senators were highly supportive of the Fire Service requests.
"During markup we will make sure you have funding," Sen. Carmen Wesselhoft said. "I for one will champion any cause you have."
"I support the need for a fireboat," Nelson said. "Bring forward a figure even if we have to address it in a supplemental."
The other senators present also made explicit their support for any reasonable request from the Fire Service.
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