In the first half of 2020 alone, the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services responded to over 2,000 calls about fires, underscoring the department’s commitment to its duty despite cuts in its budget, according to DFEMS Commissioner Dennis James C. Mendiola.
Appearing at a House Ways and Means Committee budget hearing last Thursday, Mendiola reported that the department received and responded to a total of 2,439 suppression calls so far this year. “This is all fires, including brush fires, structure fires, trash fires. Some calls are just smoke but the department has to make sure to prevent any injury in families in the area who may have asthma or whatever the case may be,” he said.
Mendiola said DFEMS puts 100% into responding to emergencies despite major cutbacks as a result of the economic downturn the CNMI is facing. “When an emergency hits, we go full on, we give it 100% support because we don’t want to shortchange anyone in the community when it comes to emergency. We’re trying our best to render the best services we can with the amount of resources we have,” he said.
Mendiola said that some of those cuts include fuel cuts, reduction in overtime, and furloughs. “What I did in the department is we just stopped non-responders from taking vehicles home, we don’t allow overtime unless it’s an emergency and it’s justified—I think most of our costs is pretty much overtime due to emergencies and there’s no way we can control that—but other stuff like travel, we shut it down, we’ve cut fuel by 30%,” Mendiola said.
About 10 of the department’s 123 staff members have also been furloughed. “Because there’s a budget shortfall and there’s a number we’re trying to save to continuously pay staff so…furloughing 10 would help us continue to pay the entire department of 123 staff,” he said.
The DFEMS staff that continue working are on a 64-hour work schedule.
The recent rescue mission for Honorio Encabo and the number of wildfires the department had to attend to have resulted in DFEMS needing extra funding to pay $20,000 worth of overtimes, Mendiola said.
“We anticipated to have overtime but we didn’t expect to have multiple brush fires. We didn’t anticipate the search-and-rescue mission. We didn’t see any of that. Emergency is on call. On a perfect day, I’m hoping guys don’t respond but that’s not the case,” he said.