As the New Year approaches, the Aquinnah fire department finds itself in a near-crisis, with the sudden resignation of the acting fire chief earlier this month, effective Dec. 31.
The imminent departure of acting chief Jim Vercruysse puts a huge strain on the already depleted fire department, which currently counts only nine members, with only four of those considered active members.
The fire department has only two fully trained firefighters, and the departure of Mr. Vercruysse raises questions about whether the fire company has enough men to adequately respond to a fire in town.
In a letter dated December 4 to selectmen, Mr. Vercruysse said the demands of the chief position were too much.
“I am losing touch with my family. My children need my guidance, and I am almost never around to help them. If I was retired and had no children at home, maybe I could do this. I need to preserve the most important thing in my life, my family,” he wrote.
At their regular meeting December 6, selectmen discussed the wording of a job description for a new chief, to be published in the Island newspapers. But the discussion soon shifted to the current state of the fire department.
Selectmen met with two members of the department, Simon Bollin and Jay Smalley, who described the fire department as short on both firefighters and training for its firefighters.
Town administrator Adam Wilson said he drafted the job description by reviewing the description of other chiefs around the state, specifically in small towns with strong chief positions that were on-call around the clock.
Among other things the job description required at least eight years’ experience on a fire department, two in a supervisory capacity; firefighter certification I & II; CPR and First Responder Certification, and Island residency.
The description also gave preference to candidates who were certified as fire instructors or had the ability to become instructors within one year and possessed certification from the state.
Mr. Bollin said he felt the job description was too ambitious for the current fire department.
“This seems to be where the fire department should be down the road. This job description might work in the future, but right now I don’t feel this is the right job description,” he said.
Mr. Bollin said the job description would preclude anyone currently on the fire department from applying for the job. He also said the description would disqualify three of the current fire chiefs on the Island. He said the department has immediate problems that need to be resolved.
The department is awaiting delivery of a new truck, which should have been delivered two months ago, and is also waiting for a truck to be returned that went out for repairs.
“We have a lot of open-ended things that need to be taken care of, and if you adopt this job description they might drag on longer,” Mr. Bollin said. “This is a good job description, but at this point I think it would be a hindrance.”
Selectmen discussed the possibility of having a fire chief from another town step in and serve as interim chief. But Mr. Bollin said he wasn’t sure if that was legally possible. He said appointing an acting chief from another town probably wouldn’t make any difference, since the town currently relies heavily on mutual aid agreements with other towns.
Mr. Bollin painted a bleak picture of the fire department. Although there are nine people on the roster, only four are considered active, and of those only two — he and Mr. Smalley — have proper training.
“Theoretically, at this moment in time, you do not have a fire department in this town for many reasons,” he said. “You can’t effectively fight a fire with two people. You can’t run any of the trucks we have with two people. So no matter what you’re doing, you have to rely on another town, or possibly two towns… to come in for mutual aid if there is a major call,” he added.
Mr. Bollin said the structure of the department is so loose it is difficult to tell who is on the roster. “We have nine on the roster, but there are four people on that list I couldn’t pick out if they were sitting in this room,” he said.
To illustrate this point, Mr. Bollin said he recently went to the fire station and found a man he didn’t recognize doing work on one of the trucks. He tried to kick him out of the station before learning he was on the department’s roster.
“I had no idea who he was… and I’ve been here three years,” he said.
Chairman Jim Newman questioned the logic of naming one of the remaining town firefighters as the acting chief, since this would effectively take them off the fire line in case of a fire.
Mr. Bollin confirmed that the fire chief does not go into a structure fire, but said it didn’t matter considering the current state of the department.
“They don’t have the training to effectively fight the fire. And you shouldn’t expect them to do it without proper training,” he said. “If there was a fire right this second, nobody from this department is going into a house fire, period.
“There are no effective firefighting capabilities in the town of Aquinnah right now,” Mr. Bollin concluded.
“That’s a sad comment,” Mr. Newman responded.
The discussion then shifted to naming an acting chief from the current department while a search for a permanent replacement takes place. Selectmen agreed this would maintain continuity and help efforts to recruit new members.
Mr. Bollin said increasing the roster will take more than just finding new volunteers; it will require the town to take a fundamentally different approach to training firefighters.
“It’s no longer where you just show up and go put out the fire… now it’s about the training and the certifications,” he said. “If you’re on the fire department and you are unwilling to do the training, you are actually not an asset, you are a hindrance. Because whoever is in charge is worrying all the time if that person is standing in the right place.”
Mr. Bollin said there has been a casual attitude toward this training in the past. He said he has showed up at the scene of a fire where a former member of the department is operating one of the fire trucks, which is a problem.
“He’s not on the department anymore, and he doesn’t necessarily know how we are going to fight the fire,” he said. “It sounds cliché but you have to trust these people with your life. Right now we haven’t had any calls, but it only takes one.”
Mr. Wilson said the department needs someone right away to take care of the day-to-day operations, such as making sure the bills get paid and making sure the new truck is delivered.
“It’s a question of having someone to take care of things,” Mr. Wilson said.
“We need someone in charge,” agreed selectman Beverly Wright.
In the end, selectmen agreed to publish the job description in the newspaper.
At their more recent meeting this week, selectmen unanimously voted to appoint Mr. Bollin the acting deputy chief, and Mr. Smalley as the acting assistant deputy chief.