Sept. 7, 2005 Fire Chief Glen Francis had a little good news and a lot of not so good news for the community Wednesday about conditions in the St. Thomas-St. John district Fire Service.
Before laying his cards on the table Wednesday at the Rotary Club of St. Thomas II, Francis addressed his audience with a touch of humor. "I know a lot of you out there," he said, "and I know you are influential, and I know Rotary give out a lot of money."
On the up side, Francis said the territory is "much better prepared" to deal with a severe hurricane because of lessons learned from hurricanes Hugo and Marilyn. Both the public agencies and private citizens are more aware now, he said.
However, Francis is disappointed with the response of some department heads to what is called a "Table Top Exercise," a group effort involving key players from all agencies affected by a major disaster storm, earthquake, plane crash.
"I'm not seeing the commissioners coming to these meetings," he said. The training is to coordinate all agencies in responding to a disaster. They meet regularly, and once a year or so they stage a major incident. Last year, they simulated a plane crash at the Cyril E. King airport.
That the Fire Service is underfunded is no secret. In this year's July budget hearings, Merwin C. Potter, director of V.I. Fire Services, found his budget request for fiscal year 2006 cut by $3.5 million.
Potter told the Senate that these cuts would affect his organization's ability to carry out its duties as a first-responder agency a concern made all the more important by the current U.S. security alert status. "In light of increasing responsibilities relating to homeland security procedures," he said at the time, "we should be able to be given what we requested."
Francis took up this theme Wednesday. "It's real scary," he said. "If we had two major fires at the same time, I don't know how we would handle it." He said the department has about 220 men, but some have been sent off to Iraq and to the National Guard. He said, "The population has outgrown the services we can provide."
"People say it's bad management," Francis lamented. "It's funding. People have to stop taking us for granted."
The Fire Service is now responsible for carrying out hazardous materials training, a responsibility the service inherited with no funding. Potter noted that at the Senate, and Francis noted it again Wednesday.
St. Thomas has three fire stations Hotel at Fort Christian, Lima in Tutu, and Dorothea. "However," Francis said, "Dorothea is really an outpost, not a station. We have one fire truck there and a crew of four. There are eight men at Hotel station and six at Tutu," he said.
Conditions at the Hotel station are bad. Francis said, "There is an awful stench there from a gut," he said. As for Water Island, Francis said there has been a Fire Services building there for five years, but no personnel and no fire truck. The Fire Service is currently borrowing a tanker from the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation.
Francis started his career in 1981 at the Hotel station, he said, "and we are still using a truck from that time. We have to keep patching it up." He later said it should go to a museum as an antique.
And there is another problem, pertinent now in hurricane season. "We don't have anywhere to park the fire trucks," Francis said. "We used to park them at the hospital, but with the new cancer institute, there's no room there." He said later that a building belonging to a government agency in the Sub Base area might be used.
"We also need a fire boat," Francis said looking directly at Edward Thomas, West Indian Co. Ltd. executive director and president. "With tourism our main industry and all the cruise ships, we should work out a plan to get one," he said. (Francis and Thomas were seen conferring after the luncheon.)
The Fire Service is hosting a Fire Chiefs' Conference Oct. 4 to Oct. 9 on St. Croix at the Divi Carina Bay Resort and Casino, Francis said. About 60 fire chiefs from 17 islands will attend.
Following the conference, the service will celebrate Fire Service Prevention Week from Oct. 9 to Oct. 15. Francis said, "Activities will include setting small fire in Lionel Roberts Stadium, like we did last year, so kids can see just how fast a fire spreads, how it smells, and how to put it out."
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