Service has fancy trucks, lacks protective gear
Cayman Islands Fire Service crews often feel like the outcast among the other local emergency service agencies, according to U.K.-based firefighting advisers who recently visited the island.
“There is no question there is low morale amongst firefighters,” said Peter Holland, the U.K.’s chief fire and rescue adviser.
Mr. Holland spent several hours speaking with local fire crews about issues in the service, after he and colleague David Norris were invited by government to review the fire service. One of the major issues identified was the lack of updated protective equipment for fire crews, Mr. Holland said.
“That’s a big factor as far as the firefighters are concerned,” he said.
Meanwhile, the government spent more than $6 million on new fire trucks following Hurricane Ivan in 2004 to replace what it had lost. The trucks make relatively few calls for service each year.
“They really are fantastic vehicles,” Mr. Holland said. “I’d like to tell you just how good your fire engines are.”
According to 911 statistics from the 2012/13 government budget year, between July 2012 and June 2013, the Emergency Medical Services [ambulances] received 3,570 calls for service. The fire service received 867 calls for service during the same period.
Whether or not there is a fire call, crews still have to staff the stations. The fire service was making an average of just more than two calls per day during the previous budget year. The local ambulance service was making nearly 10 calls a day during the same period.
In addition, Mr. Holland noted that while both police and emergency medical crews were using Cayman’s advanced 911 Emergency Communications Centre to their advantage, the fire service had not done so, leaving crews feeling distanced from the action, so to speak.
“They don’t dispatch fire engines directly from that facility,” he said.
Eric Bush, who has oversight responsibility for the fire service as chief officer for the Ministry of Home Affairs, said senior government officials have been aware of certain problems in the fire service for some time and it was for that reason Messrs. Holland and Norris were asked to visit Cayman.
He said low morale and a high number of sick days among local fire crews are symptoms of the actual problems in the service.
The Caymanian Compass reported this week that government owed local firefighters between $500,000 and $1 million in back overtime and accrued vacation pay. Mr. Bush said the government intends to make good on that this year but does not want to be paying the same amount next year.
“What we’re trying to do is address the source areas, not the outcome,” Mr. Bush said. “There is a lack of communication and a feeling of disconnection … or a feeling that the fire service is out on its own.”
Ultimately, the preliminary review by Mr. Holland and Mr. Norris found the fire service is “under-resourced” for what the government is asking it to do, and that fire crews’ time isn’t always best utilized.
Mr. Bush said the government is in the process of hiring 26 firefighters for the 2013/14 fiscal year. He said the service is currently 100 percent Caymanian staffed, but that outside hires would have to be made if local people are not interested in the job.
The additional hires would bring the fire service up to about 150 people, still about 15 short of the number employed three years ago.