April 9, 2006 — Faced with answering a call from St. Croix Rescue and babysitting his six-month-old daughter, Gregory N. Richards didn't have to think twice.
He swaddled the infant in a blanket, placed her in the back of his vehicle and drove to the scene where he knew he was bound to meet up with his wife, who was working the night shift as an emergency medical technician.
"The first thing she asked was Where's my daughter. Where did you leave her?' and I said She's in the back of the vehicle,'" Richards, 42, recalled Sunday.
He got off with a stern lecture and more than 20 years later Richards said he's never wavered in answering calls for assistance when they come in.
"We have a duty to act even though we may be volunteers," Richards said. "The community relies on us and when someone has an emergency, you can't say you're not coming."
That commitment has earned him the top spot as chief of the organization he helped charter.
Richards, the father of four children, ages 5 to 22, has served the V.I. Emergency Services community for over 20 years — first with the Civil Air Patrol as a lanky teenager alongside classmate Novelle Francis (now the territorial chief of Police), and then as the highest ranking official of Civil Defense and Emergency Services, now the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA).
As a teenager, Richards got his first experience in emergency response during a hurricane, and he said he hasn't looked back since.
He is credited for the development and progress of St. Croix Rescue over the years, and those who know him say his tenacity and aggressive management style has moved Rescue into the international spotlight.
"I've known him to be an individual who plans, coordinates and executes for the betterment of St. Croix Rescue and the residents of St. Croix," said Administrator Gregory R. Francis, who has known Richards for a number of years. "I consider him an exemplary figure in community service above self."
Allison Gittens, VITEMA state training and exercise officer, also praised Richards. "I've worked with him on several projects and having worked with him, he's quite a team player and very supportive," she said.
Richards' resume reads like a virtual Who's Who in emergency response.
He is a certified Heavy Duty Rescue Instructor and American Heart Association CPR instructor/trainer, has over 20 years of clinic experience in pre-hospital medicine and over 10 years as a flight medic. He has also taught numerous emergency management courses locally and internationally and has been published extensively on topics in emergency medicine and technical rescue.
He does his volunteer work while managing his home and a full-time job with the V.I. Department of Health as the EMT crew chief . He said he volunteers at least 40 hours a week.
"The satisfaction comes from helping people. The idea of knowing I made a difference in someone's life is rewarding," he said of doing such necessary work minus compensation.
Often his younger children — both boys, ages 5 and 11 — tag along with him while he volunteers at Rescue.
"They are usually victim actors," he said with a laugh. "They've done this so many times, they're the best victim actors you can find around."
Richards said he's constantly reminded of just how important his volunteerism is to the community.
"The other day I was in Pueblo [supermarket] and a woman came up to me and said Remember me?' and she replayed the event that led to our meeting," Richards said.
Years ago, he explained, he'd gone to a home where a woman essentially went into labor in the bathroom. The baby fell into the toilet bowl.
"She told me this is the baby you saved that day and beside her was her daughter who was now 16 years old," Richards said. "Over the years, stories like that would replay themselves over and over and you walk away and say Wow, I really made a difference in someone's life.'"
In addition to volunteering, Richards holds membership in several organizations, including the International Search and Rescue Group, a United Nations response arm; and the National Association for Search and Rescue, based in Washington, D.C. Recently he was elected to a two-year term as president of the Caribbean Association of Fire Chiefs. He last served as vice president of the latter association.
As President of CAFC, Richards said he will be concentrating on training in the Caribbean region and especially in St. Lucia for the 2007 World Cricket Cup.
He said that the United States sanctions and funds the federal training not only as an act of goodwill but because of the global nature of terrorism.
Last week, Richards other Rescue officials and Fire Service Chief Ovaldo Graham traveled to Jamaica to assist 480 U.S. soldiers with federally coordinated emergency response training. Richards also served as an evaluator of the training.
Richards, who said he is eyeing retirement soon, is a member of the EMS Committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs in Maryland.
Finally, he says he would like to put one last notch on his list of accomplishments: merge V.I. Fire Service, EMS and Rescue into one agency.
"I've been a proponent for the merger; it's something I don't make a secret of," Richards said. "I would like to see an ambulance on the East End or at the fire station in Frederiksted or at the Frederiksted Health Clinic because I don't believe we are meeting the mandate of the community relative to emergency medical services response.
The reason is we have one ambulance station (Juan F. Luis Hospital) and because of that, response time to outer perimeters is far beyond the acceptable norm."
Richards said that on average it takes 13 to 15 minutes to get from Luis Hospital to Frederiksted — and that's on a day when traffic isn't compromised.
"If we were going to Divi Carina [Hotel and Casino] that would be a 40-minute response," he said, adding that an ambulance at the Cotton Valley Fire Station would decrease response time by more than half. Richards said he would also like to see an ambulance placed in Christiansted, at the Estate Richmond Fire Station, and he has been speaking with government officials to see that it comes to fruition soon.
For all his accomplishments and maybe because of them, Richards said he has one weakness. "I don't know how to say no.' I could get 100 requests and want to fill all."
Knowing how to be a "mediator" and "accommodator" is his biggest strength, he said.
"I am a people person and I get along with others and find myself being chosen to mediate or accommodate whenever two sides are at an impasse."
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