Island extends a helping hand to St. Vincent and the Grenadines

From left to right: Commissioner of Police Keith Miller, U.S. ambassador Larry Palmer, St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ambassador to Washington La Celia Prince, Tim Carroll, Glenn DeBlase, and deputy police commissioner Michael Charles. — Photo courtesy of County of Dukes County

The latitude of the two islands differs, but Martha’s Vineyard and the nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines share a dependence on a tourist economy, and the need to be self-reliant. Those commonalities underpin recent efforts to establish a “Sister Islands” program and the initiative for a trip by two Vineyard firefighters to the Caribbean nation last month.

On April 24, Tim Carroll, Chilmark executive secretary and assistant fire chief, and Glenn DeBlase, a captain in the West Tisbury Fire Department and electrician’s assistant, left Martha Vineyard on a journey to St. Vincent, funded by the state department.

Over the span of five days, the veteran firefighters met with police, fire and government officials on St. Vincent, toured the island nation and offered insights gleaned from their experience on Martha’s Vineyard.

“I was shocked to find out how similar the problems on one island are to the other,” Mr. Carroll told The Times in a conversation following his return.

Winter start

The Sister Island program is built on diplomatic initiatives and one West Tisbury resident’s long-standing personal and professional relationship to St. Vincent and the state department.

H.E. La Celia Prince, the Grenadines ambassador to Washington, asked for U.S. assistance in boosting the capacity of the local fire department. Ambassador Prince spoke to Larry Palmer, the newly named U.S. Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

Anita Botti, former Chief of Staff for Secretary Hillary Clinton’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the Department of State and a West Tisbury resident, got the wheels turning. Retired now but still working as a special projects consultant for the state department, she contacted the office of state senator Dan Wolf.

Ms. Botti, who worked as a Peace Corps volunteer on St. Vincent more than 40 years ago, had a particular interest in the area. It was left to Dukes County manager Martina Thornton to bring all the pieces together.

On January 2, Ms. Thornton coordinated a meeting between Vineyard public safety officials and a delegation from St. Vincent and the Grenadines to discuss the creation of a partnership between St. Vincent and Martha’s Vineyard similar to the model of the Sister Cities program.

“The core idea is that the people living on an island can better relate to each other’s challenges and the restraints that the island life represents,” Ms. Thornton said in a press release in January.

Mr. Palmer traveled north to attend the meeting. Also present was Mr. Omari S. Williams, Minister-Counselor from the Embassy of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who explained the concerns that St. Vincent has regarding fire prevention and suppression capabilities.

The initial proposal was a preliminary assessment by Vineyard firefighters of St. Vincent’s fire and emergency preparedness and the identification of areas that would be a priority for improvement.

Island to island

Mr. Carroll said that one of the goals of the trip was to offer advice on how St. Vincent firefighters might do more with less, given their shared acknowledgement that resources for immediate mutual aid stop at the water.

“I think we came away with some interesting ideas for ourselves,” Mr. Carroll said, “and I became very grateful knowing that the U.S. government and the state of Massachusetts is available over the horizon if we need them. These poor folks are on their own.”

One project that might benefit from Vineyard input, Mr. Carroll said, is the construction of a new airport that will include a fire station. One quality common to both islands is the nature of the people who do the job. “I found that all the firefighters are very knowledgable and very dedicated to what they are doing,” Mr. Carroll said.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is divided into six parishes. Five parishes are on Saint Vincent, while the sixth is made up of the Grenadine islands. The main island of St. Vincent is approximately 150 square miles.

Bequia is the largest island in the Grenadines at 7 square miles and is approximately 9 miles from Kingstown, at the southern tip of St. Vincent.

There are only two fire stations in operation. One was the central station in the capital of Kingstown and the other is located at the airport. The department has a “Bronto” hook and ladder fire truck similar to the model used by Tisbury but it is currently unusable due to a computer problem. On Bequia, the airport equipment includes two small pick-up truck fire engines.

“The community is at risk at the moment,” Mr. Carroll said of the limited equipment.

Confidence is key

Mr. DeBlase said that the Vineyard could make a significant contribution by helping St. Vincent firefighters establish a self-training program. “Much like us, they have to send people away to get educated,” Mr. DeBlase said. “What we have done on the Island, is train guys who can turn around and train the rest of them.”

Mr. DeBlase added, “Teaching them to empower themselves is really a key.”

The training and funding system on St. Vincent is built around the police department, Mr. DeBlase explained. New recruits first train as police officers prior to assignments in one of several public safety departments that include Coast Guard and the fire department. Funding first flows to police.

“The men that are there are dedicated, hard-working firemen, just like anywhere else,” Mr. DeBlase said. “They just need some support and training.”

Mr. DeBlase stressed that just as on the Vineyard, islanders on St. Vincent must decide what equipment and systems work best for them and in their environment. “They are smart people. They live on their island,” he said.

The new international airport now under construction will include a new fire crash rescue station. “I told the second-in-command, this is your fire station,” Mr. DeBlase said. “You have to take control of it. Make it your own. Don’t let them tell you what you they’re going to build. You tell them what you want in your fire station.”

Mr. DeBlase suggested the new fire station could incorporate training elements that would help the department become self-sufficient. The Vineyarders were able to offer some immediate practical advice when they spotted a diesel generator located near the fill station for the air packs fire fighters wear.

“When we first got there we were met with some skepticism,” Mr. DeBlase said, “but we left with hugs and handshakes.”

St. Vincent and Martha’s Vineyard also share the sometimes problematic logistics of travel. The two-day flight down took the Islanders from Boston to Miami to Barbados to St. Vincent. “The only way back,” Mr. Carroll said, “was St. Vincent to Port Au Spain in Trinidad, to Miami and then to Boston. It took four days to travel for five days on the ground.”

A partnership born

Ambassador Palmer accompanied the men on their first day on St. Vincent. “Under the guidance of Commissioner of Police, Mr. Keith Miller, Mr. Carroll and Mr. DeBlase toured several fire units throughout the state, as far as Fancy on the Windward end and the Chateaubelair Police Station as well as Richmond on the Leeward section of the country,” according to a press release issued by the embassy of St. Vincent. “The team also visited the Central Fire Unit at the Police Headquarters, E.T. Joshua Airport, Paget Farm Police Station and the J.F. Mitchell Airport on Bequia, in order to conduct an assessment of staff capacity, training levels and overall resource needs to improve the country’s fire prevention and defense capabilities. The site assessments also included visits to the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.

“The opportunity was also used to have Captains Carroll and De Blaise examine the draft plans for the Fire Unit at the Argyle International Airport. The visiting experts suggested design changes which will enhance the Unit and ensure that it is the certifiable standard for an international airport. Both visiting and local teams shared best practices, involved in the handling of fire emergencies.”

“I hope the partnership will continue to develop and its objectives will develop from strength to strength and great benefits will be derived,” said Commissioner Miller.

“I am glad that Dukes County was able to send two representatives to assist St. Vincent with their fire prevention assessment needs,” Ms. Thornton said in an email to The Times. “The assessment results and recommendations will be used to improve St. Vincent’s firefighting capabilities. I would like to thank Tim Carroll and Glenn DeBlase for their willingness to represent Dukes County and the Martha’s Vineyard firefighters and for the good work they have done.”