Oak Bluffs firefighters protect lives, take heat

While this Spruce Street home was a complete loss, Oak Bluffs firefighters saved two nearby structures in a January 1 fire. — File photo by Rob Gatchell

A New Year’s Day fire that destroyed a house in Oak Bluffs illustrated both the strength and weakness of a volunteer firefighting force on Martha’s Vineyard. At any given time and day, individual job and family responsibilities may affect response time and manpower.

On January 1, many members of the volunteer force were away for the holidays. As a result, manpower was in short supply for the first few minutes of the battle in which all agreed the house at 17 Spruce Avenue was beyond saving as the first trucks arrived.

Despite the volunteer nature of the force, and those of the assisting volunteer departments that backed up Oak Bluffs under an existing mutual aid agreement, the level of training remains high, as do the demands, fire officials said. Over the years, volunteer fire departments on Martha’s Vineyard have evolved into more professional units, but that comes with a cost in time.

“It’s not like it was,” Oak Bluffs fire chief Pete Forend said of the earlier years. “We all just came, it was a lot of fun to do it. Now it’s a lot more demanding with all the requirements on us. Regulations are changing daily; they are geared to full-time departments, but we have to keep up with them.”

The nature of a volunteer force means no one knows for sure which or how many firefighters will respond. Frequently, department officers arriving at a major fire have to forego the most effective firefighting tactics, and switch to another plan of attack.

“There’s no guarantees,” assistant chief John Rose said. “You have to prioritize and manage the scene based on the amount of equipment and personnel you have in the beginning. You have an ideal way of setting things up, and based on what personnel is arriving, you have to adjust to that.”

The force

Approximately 60 volunteers currently make up the Oak Bluffs fire department, led by Chief Forend. Deputy chief Tony Ferreira, and assistant chiefs John Rose and Bruce O’Donnell complete the command staff.

Traditionally, the department organizes the command structure around six vehicles.

An engine company is attached to each of the town’s four pumper trucks. A captain, two lieutenants, and seven firefighters make up each company.

Each truck carries at least 500 gallons of water on board, and is capable of laying at least 1,000 feet of hose to reach the nearest fire hydrant or water supply.

Another company is assigned to the aerial ladder truck. The fire department also operates a rescue vehicle.

“We cross train on all the trucks,” Chief Forend said. “Once they’re signed off on a truck, they can take any truck in the department.”

The chief or one of his officers is on duty around the clock. The duty officer drives an SUV equipped with radios, a computer, and other equipment. It is often the first vehicle to arrive at a fire scene.

Chief Forend said every fire scene is different, and unlike a larger department where staffing and equipment is known at the outset, a volunteer force must deal with more variables. “If we pull up to a fire, hopefully one of the chiefs is there first who can assume command,” he said. “But maybe not. We’re a little more unique than most places. We usually do not have a problem getting a response.”

Mutual respect

Fire officials have high praise for the Island’s mutual aid system, which helps ensure an adequate response to fires.

With any structure fire, Oak Bluffs policy is to call in at least one fire company from Edgartown and Tisbury. According to protocol worked out in cooperation with other Island towns, for a fire alarm at a major facility such as the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, or in a downtown district of any town, all three down-Island towns respond at the first alarm.

Usually trucks from neighboring towns go to the fire scene first to assist in the firefighting effort. Often, once a fire is under control, mutual aid responders will stand by at the local fire station, in case another fire call comes in.

“We rely heavily on the mutual aid system,” Chief Forend said. “Back in the day, the towns used to not do as much. All the towns realize we do need to rely on each other more and more.”

Cost control

The Oak Bluffs fire department operating budget totals $194,463 for the current fiscal year. Of that total, $114,600 goes to salaries for the chief, and annual stipends for officers and firefighters.

The fire chief earns $12,000 annually.

“I put in an average of 25 hours a week on administration and inspections,” Chief Forend said. That does not include the time he spends at actual fires. “None of us are getting rich from doing this, that’s for sure.”

By comparison, Edgartown’s fire department operating budget is $312,480, and the fire chief earns $28,344.

Tisbury’s operating budget totals $237,161, and the chief is paid $52,806.

Oak Bluffs volunteer firefighters get a stipend in two equal payments each year. The total annual stipend for the assistant chiefs and deputy chief is $2,500. Fire company captains earn $1,100 annually, lieutenants get $950, and firefighters, $800.

Chief Forend said Oak Bluffs has not denied his department what it needs to fight fires, but the disparity in budget and pay is a point of contention. “We’ve been trying to change it for the last four years,” he said. “But the budget crisis we’re in, it keeps getting put off. We’re trying to catch up to the rest of the towns.”

Training tactics

Joining the fire department requires a significant commitment to ongoing training and certification. State regulations require 140 hours of basic training before a firefighter is certified and allowed to join a department.

Also required is at least 20 hours of basic first responder training, so firefighters can provide emergency medical assistance for an injured person at a fire scene.

CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) training is also required, and every firefighter must be recertified annually.

Each fire company holds a monthly drill and meeting which can take from one to five hours.

Four to six times a year, assistant chief Rose stages a department wide drill to simulate response to such potential emergencies as a fire in the downtown district, or a fire aboard a Steamship Authority ferry,

Those drills take many hours of planning, and often require an entire day to carry out and review.

Working tension

As with any organization, personalities sometimes clash. Chief Forend is very aware that dissension can undermine the department’s efforts. He holds regular meetings with the fire captains, in an effort to head off problems.

“You’ve always got personalities, when you’ve got 60 people,” Chief Forend said. “We get together, we deal with them. The old way was don’t worry about it, forget it. I want the captains to bring back the input from the companies. They speak freely, see what’s working, what’s not working.”

Department leaders say dissension does not inhibit the department’s ability to fight fires.

“When the call to duty comes in, all that stuff is put aside and people work together,” Mr. Rose said. “You many not like the person next to you, but you know what you need to do and you get it done.”

Oak Bluffs firefighters, as well as those in other towns, were stung by criticism of their efforts on New Year’s Day when firefighters initially hooked up to an authentic but non-working fire hydrant a property owner had placed in his dog pen as a lawn ornament.

Many felt the criticism was unwarranted, and came from people with little understanding of firefighting procedure. Some said residents, who are unwilling to volunteer the time and effort required to join the department, did not appreciate their committment.

Chief Forend says he has instituted a department policy that prohibits firefighters from responding to criticism in online forums.

“There’s no sense in getting caught up in that,” Chief Forend said. “They’re trained properly, they’re doing their job, forget about it. It is frustrating, but it’s how you deal with it.”

“That really hurts the morale,” Mr. Rose said. “If the Oak Bluffs fire department didn’t respond as quick as we did, there would have been more property lost.”

Many volunteers join the department for the camaraderie and tradition, and a sense of helping the community where they and their families live.

“It’s a passion,” Mr. Rose said. “People want to help, and people want to be part of something and have a strong tradition. It makes a difference; we make a difference.”