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Ming: emergency services face yough year ahead

Shortages: Renee Ming, the minister of national security (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

The island’s emergency services are plagued by staff shortages, poor buildings and ageing equipment, the national security minister said yesterday.

Renee Ming said that overtime pay for police, fire and prison officers was necessary because of staff shortages in all three services.

Ms Ming added that the Bermuda Fire & Rescue service budget had been reduced by $1.24 million to $13.1 million.

She said savings had been made through the defunding of five unfilled firefighter posts.

She added the service had 123 employees, but needed an additional 18 firefighters to be up to full strength, but that there were no plans to recruit.

Ms Ming said that the fire station at the airport had had its staff reduced from 25 to 13 – when the minimum staffing level was 15.

The budget for the repair and maintenance of vehicles has also been cut back, from $583,000 to $285,000.

Ming revealed details of problems yesterday as the House of Assembly debated on the ministry’s budget for the next year.

Ms Ming told a virtual session of the House: “It is not expected that the level of service delivery to the public will decrease, but overtime is projected to be higher over the next fiscal period.

The fire service’s training budget has been slashed by half, to $151,000.

Ms Ming said the savings were possible because more in-house training was planned for the next year, rather than sending staff on courses overseas.

She added the police service was also operating with old equipment.

Ms Ming said: “In terms of usage, the Bermuda Police Service operational fleet is aged.

“These vehicles experience a terrible amount of wear and tear in a short space of time. As a result, these vehicles need to be replenished on a case-by-case basis.

“The BPS has not been given any funding for new or replacement vehicles during the 2021/22 financial year.”

Ms Ming warned: “The BPS faces critical risks in relation to maintaining its ageing fleet and serving calls for service.”

She added that police computer systems were ten years old and nearing the end of their life and that $315,000 had been set aside for upgrades.

The force employs 393 officers – seven short of full strength – but Ms Ming said that shortfall was likely to increase over the next financial year.

She added that the BPS was likely to face further problems in the summer, particularly if the tourism season takes off and Covid-19 restrictions still had to be enforced.

Ms Ming said the pandemic had caused “significant changes” in policing in the past year,

She added: “Shelter in place and curfew meant a reduction in property crime. However there has been an increase in incidents relating to vulnerable victims such as domestic abuse and mental health related matters related to home confinements and the inability to socialise.

“Given the challenging economic outlook for the island, the BPS is attentive to the possibilities of social unrest. Tourism will increase the likelihood of new strategies.

“It is anticipated that the summer months will bring challenges to community safety as residents and visitors seek to socialise in large numbers on beaches on the water and bars and restaurants.”

Ms Ming said that the prison service also suffered from low manning levels, although that had been offset in part by senior prison officers who had stayed on after they hit retirement age.

She added the three prisons – Westgate, the prison farm, and the Co-ed Facility – suffered from “significant infrastructure problems due to ageing buildings and less than robust maintenance care”.

Ms Ming listed several problems, from mould to faulty plumbing.

She said: “These conditions result in an unsuitable working environment for staff and living conditions for the inmates.

“Physical plant deficiencies have affected staff and inmate morale. They do not create an environment conducive to rehabilitation. We will work to bring the facilities up to acceptable standards.

She added that a new shift system would optimise staffing levels and the prison service planned to hire more officers.

Michael Dunkley, the shadow national security minister, said he understood that the Covid-19 pandemic had caused the Government economic upheaval, but that the Ministry of National Security was an area that appeared to be taking the “brunt of this challenge”.

He added budget cuts were a concern and it would be difficult to limit spending to what was set out given past overspends under bigger budgets.

Mr Dunkley said the police service had seen its budget cut by $5.5 million over the past three years and the drop of manpower in the service was a worry.

He added: “This is a real concern to me going forward. It is a pressing concern to the community.”

Mr Dunkley also highlighted the 11 per cent cut to prison service budget.

He said the department faced serious problems, including understaffing and low morale, and questioned if the system could carry out the necessary work to prepare inmates for release.

Mr Dunkley said: “If we are going to incarcerate people, we need to make sure they can come back and be better people after that.”

He added that a former national security minister had promised 20 new prison officers would be hired, but it did not appear that had happened.

Mr Dunkley asked: “How low are we going to let it go before we realise that we do have a problem and we need to do something about it?“

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Published March 18, 2021 at 8:25 am (Updated March 18, 2021 at 8:25 am)

Ming: emergency services face yough year ahead

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