3 EMTs quit, citing Emergency Services' lack of response to allegations of sexual harassment
Published: October 9, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - The fate of the Emergency Services Division is up in the air, as a number of EMTs have left the division's St. Thomas-St. John District citing disgust at a lack of response to complaints about sexual harassment and mismanagement.
Their departure leaves a hole in the already understaffed division, they said.
Also, a bill authorizing the proposed merger of the EMS division with the V.I. Fire Service, a move that was slated to start this month, has not been taken up by the 30th Legislature.
The St. Thomas-St. John District's present staffing levels would not allow for the deployment of EMTs to the fire stations in the merger plan, according to David Sweeney, territorial coordinator for EMS.
New training classes have promoted four intermediate EMTs on St. Croix to higher classifications, allowing them to expand the duties they are able to exercise in the field and to provide better overall coverage for ambulance calls. Another 15 basic EMTs in the St. Thomas-St. John District are scheduled to receive the same training in November, Sweeney said.
However, the St. Thomas-St. John District still needs about 14 people in addition to the current 28 EMTs to function optimally, Sweeney said.
V.I. Health Commissioner Darice Plaskett confirmed that overtime, which has been a concern of the Health Department, is being used to cover shifts.
According to Plaskett, Sweeney's position as territorial coordinator was created after The Daily News published an investigative report in May exposing dangerously long response times, poor management, sexual harassment, lack of equipment and medicines, old, poorly maintained ambulances and inadequate and fraudulent training practices. Her department's goal is to impose greater accountability and oversight on the division's top brass in both districts, she said.
At least three St. Thomas-St. John District's EMT supervisors - Kimba Turnbull, James Petty Jr. and Avon Chesterfield - were found to have violated policies after the V.I. Personnel Division concluded an investigation into at least nine sexual harassment complaints, according to a letter from Personnel Director Kenneth Hermon Jr. sent to an EMT who has since left the division.
However, none of the administrators whom EMTs said were directly responsible for the hostile work environment and underperformance of the division have been terminated or demoted as a result.
"You complained about comments and conduct allegedly made by Kimba Turnbull, Avon Chesterfield and James Petty. Our investigation reached a finding that the behavior you alleged very likely occurred and that Ms. Turnbull, Mr. Chesterfield and Mr. Petty violated our policy," the letter states. "We have initiated appropriate corrective action as a result of the investigation's findings."
Plaskett confirmed in July that "more than one individual" had been suspended without pay but would not name names, citing confidentiality of personnel matters. Chesterfield and Petty were "on leave," she said.
Meanwhile, three EMTs who said they left the division after suffering retaliation for their complaints and after becoming disaffected by the responses of the Health Department and the Personnel Division to the management crises have confirmed that all three were suspended but called the actions "a slap on the wrist" compared with the seriousness of the abuse of their leader's positions.
Vannessa Joseph-Holt had complained that Chesterfield and Petty held her back from receiving promotions in spite of her having repeatedly applied for and taken courses of instruction and that Chesterfield demanded sex from her. She said that when she resigned two months after the investigative report, the division was still being run "more like a fraternity" than a life-saving, professional organization.
"Because of the challenges of working in an environment that was ripe with favoritism, improprieties, hostility and unjust forms of retaliation, I have no choice but to end my tenure with Emergency Medical Services," Joseph-Holt's June 17 resignation letter reads.
Joseph-Holt said she has had to relocate to the mainland to seek employment in her field because of the frustration and trauma she encountered while working for the division.
"This has hurt my family a lot," she said of the relocation.
The three EMTs who spoke to The Daily News about leaving the division said they had been subject to retaliation since coming forward with their experiences and expressed doubt that the division could operate without augmentation from the National Guard or some other entity if more EMTs resign.
Robert Major, who said he was seeking employment elsewhere in early September, said the department had been operating at bare minimum staffing levels all summer.
Alson Lockhart, an EMT who went on leave in June, then resigned and moved to the states, said that overtime would escalate and that this is a practice that top management, especially Turnbull, has previously condoned.
One of the complaints Lockhart said he expressed to the Health Department was the misuse of scheduling privileges by Turnbull, who he said was taking calls herself to bill the Health Department for those hours on top of her administrative salary.
"Right now, EMS is on a thin tread because with the three of us gone it kind of crippled the system in a way," Lockhart said. "This situation, with these allegations not being addressed in a timely manner and in a productive manner, and now for us to resign from the department, they are opening themselves back up to a lot of overtime and to more people calling in sick from the workload and the stress."
Lockhart, Joseph-Holt and Major reported being subject to undue reprimands from their superiors, having certain documents withheld upon leaving and being treated as outcasts by other EMTs. They said they suspected that these acts were retaliation for them publicly voicing some of the division's internal problems.
EMS and Fire merger
Plaskett and Sweeney said Tuesday that the steering committee for the merger would continue to draw up plans and that in the meantime the Health Department has made many changes to promote a better working environment for EMTs and to improve their efficiency in the field.
These changes include regular meeting with EMTs, the implementation of in-services for professional development and the implementation of a new electronic charting system.
Plaskett and V.I. Fire Service Director Steve Brow both said that the ongoing cross-training of firefighters as EMTs would greatly improve the availability of life-saving technicians in the territory. Brow said that 15 firefighters are studying for national certification exams and that the goal of the merger's steering committee is to reduce response times to 10 minutes. The estimated up-front costs for the merger would be about $5.1 million, Plaskett said.
Sen. Craig Barshinger, who sits on the Senate's Health and Public Safety committees, said Tuesday that senators are in agreement that the merger is a good idea, but the legislation had been bypassed in the hectic budget season leading up to the last Senate session.
Barshinger said he was not certain that a merger would automatically solve the management problems within EMS or reduce response times, but that it would hopefully greatly reduce overtime expenses.
"The only thing I know for sure is that it should eliminate the outrageous overtime that EMS has been having," he said. "A few years ago, it was over a million dollars a year in overtime just for EMS. That doesn't make sense. With the merging and the cross-training of personnel, we will be able to properly staff them."
- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.