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Fire service shown ‘total disregard’

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Firefighters and emergency medical technicians feared that people could die because of a “total disregard” shown by the last Progressive Labour Party administration, it was claimed yesterday.

A source close to Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service employees said: “The facts are that expired equipment, broken vehicles and mental burnout will eventually catch up — and lives will be lost.

“Firefighters are of the opinion that Government has gambled with their safety for years, which means that they've been gambling with the lives of Bermudians by extension.”

But Renée Ming, the Minister of National Security, insisted last night that she had the “utmost respect” for BFRS staff and that funds allocated to the service meant crews could “respond to emergencies without compromising their safety”.

The source close to firefighters was speaking after a PLP spokeswoman said last week the party “strongly” supported the Bermuda Police Service and the Royal Bermuda Regiment in an article about uniformed services.

He said that “the same support has not been bestowed upon firefighters or EMTs of the fire service”.

The source added: “Since assuming the mantle of government, David Burt's PLP has shown anything but support for, and more accurately, total disregard for the men and women of the BFRS and the department as a whole.

“For years, they have failed to provide the fire service with a sufficient operating budget.”

He said: “This has handicapped the service to not only safely and adequately meet the needs of the community, but to ensure the safety of the lives of the officers responding to these emergencies.”

The source added: “Critical safety equipment such as an extra set of firefighting gear has been in need for many years with officers being forced to forgo established safety practices as a means of ensuring that their responsibilities to Bermuda can be met.”

He said: “A dangerously ageing fleet of vehicles has seen numerous instances of breakdowns in the middle of emergency responses and a lack of equipment to outfit all vehicles adequately results in officers having to change equipment from one vehicle to the next, hoping that another emergency doesn't manifest during the time-consuming process.

“When confronted, BFRS management simply point to their budget allocation from the Government to show that adequate money is simply not provided, despite constant requests made.”

The source added that the service had been “grossly understaffed for the last five years”, which resulted in “severe strain” on staff who worked overtime to fill gaps.

He claimed that Mr Burt, the Premier, and Ms Ming met the Fire Services Association after her appointment in July, but it “amounted to nothing but a photo op”.

The source said that the minister and top officials had not yet met union representatives again to hear their concerns and plan a way forward “despite promises to do so”.

He said that fire crews “assumed the highest risk and responsibility” during the coronavirus pandemic by treating and transporting Covid-19 patients “with no prior training or protections in place”.

The source added: “They never sheltered in place, never took time off and continuously and diligently served this country during the lockdown while assuming the full risks that came with their responsibilities.

“They did so with the risk assessment continuously elevating and adequate personal protective equipment difficult to procure.”

He claimed that the Government ignored the service by “ambiguously referring to firefighters as ‘first responders' or making no mention of their involvement whatsoever”.

The source said that firefighters “serve their country without complaint, as they understand that the community is the number one priority” and “risk their lives every day ... with honour”.

He added: “Unfortunately, they work under a government that has made it clear by both their lack of acknowledgement and action to prioritise their safety, that the lives and wellbeing of the officers of the BFRS hold little value in their list of priorities.”

A government spokeswoman said last night that Ms Ming and Mr Burt met the FSA's new leadership team on July 23, when they thanked the BFRS team for “outstanding service to the community”.

Ms Ming said yesterday: “I wish to publicly state that I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the dedication and commitment of each member of the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service.”

She added that the Fire Safety Act was passed in 2017 to support BFRS efforts to make buildings safer.

Ms Ming said her ministry had been “extremely vigilant in ensuring that this critical service is staffed with the resources they need”.

She added that she and Mr Burt, at the July meeting with the FSA executive, “reiterated the Government's commitment to the recruitment and training of Bermudians” and committed to overseas training to keep standards high, and also promised that funding for extra equipment would not be frozen.

The minister said that the BFRS was allotted an additional $1.2 million in the 2020-21 Budget and that new breathing sets had arrived on the island, although the arrival of a $1.2 million ladder truck was delayed by Covid-19.

Ms Ming said that $458,000 was available in this year's [20-21] Budget for a new fire truck and that 12 firefighters completed training “in the backdrop” of the coronavirus pandemic.

She added that firefighters had a coronavirus plan in line with guidelines from health officials and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and that extra cash was made available in the battle against the coronavirus.

She added: “As an example, the BFRS has spent $149,000 to the purchase of Covid-19-related PPE and supplies.”

Ms Ming said that the finance ministry had earmarked an extra $240,000 to the fire service to “cover unanticipated Covid-19 expenses”.

Vital service: the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service

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Published September 28, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated September 28, 2020 at 12:24 pm)

Fire service shown ‘total disregard’

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