Coast Guard honors Peter Martell

In this photo from 2013, Chief of Woods Hole Station Justin Longval (left) and Southeastern New England Commander J.T. Kondratowicz (right) present Peter Martell with a certificate of merit from the United States Coast Guard. — Photo by Steven Conley

Last week, the United States Coast Guard honored retiring Oak Bluffs emergency management director Peter Martell with a certificate of merit that read, “In recognition of notable services which have assisted greatly in furthering the aims and functions of the Coast Guard.”

The accompanying declaration, read by Southeastern sector commander Captain J.T. Kondratowicz, praised Mr. Martell as “a tireless advocate for improving the readiness and safety of Oak Bluffs and the coastal region…Mr. Martell’s dedication and devotion to the maritime safety and security is exemplary and is in keeping with the highest traditions of the Coast Guard.”

“I thought it was going to be a handshake and an ‘atta boy,’ but they made a pretty big deal out of it,” said Mr. Martell, sitting in his large, spartan office at the Wesley Hotel the day after the ceremony. “I was choked up.”

In his 38 years as Oak Bluffs Emergency Management Director, Mr. Martell has received numerous citations from a wide range of government agencies, including the Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They hang on his office walls, alongside aerial photographs and maps of Oak Bluffs and bookshelves groaning under the weight of thick binders with emergency plans for all manner of disasters. With an occasional blast from a police scanner, his office feels more like a command center than the office of a hotelier. In a conversation with the Times, Mr. Martell reflected on his 45 years of public service to the Island, which will end on December 31, when his tenure as emergency management director expires.

“I’m a fireman first,” he said. “I was a fireman for 43 years and a captain for 30 of those years. I’m the only person ever to be a member of all six Island fire departments at the same time. I was also a fire investigator for 25 years. It was fascinating work.

“After the state fire marshall’s office took over the investigations, it sucked,” he said, with characteristic candor. “We never got reports. We had two fires we knew were set, but we never got a report. But that’s how it was.”

Civil Defense Director, as it was known, was a relatively simple job on this sleepy isle when Mr. Martell took the job in 1975. “They wheeled you out for a hurricane and wheeled you back in,” he said.

The Blizzard of 1978 was his first big test. “I was a brand spanking new emergency management director when it hit,” he said. “It was clear the grocery stores were running out of perishables, especially milk. I made a phone call, and Cumberland farms snuck a milk truck along the coast road, and managed to get into Woods Hole. We got it across and they were selling milk out of the truck in Vineyard Haven. Word of mouth travels fast here — you can’t beat it.”

Hurricane Bob in 1991 was another big challenge. “There wasn’t a road that didn’t have trees across it. Power was out in some places for 10 days,” he recalled.

The most recent emergency was the “water event” in Oak Bluffs this past June, when an emergency boil water order was in effect for four days. “We made the arrangements for bottled water for the town in one hour and the trucks arrived three and a half hours later,” he said. Six weeks later, Mr. Martell was helping to plan the best escape route for the president and his family from Seaview Avenue extension should something have gone amiss at the fireworks.

Presidential visits spanning two decades, 9/11, and the Boston Marathon bombings have made the job of emergency management director vastly more complicated. “Technically it should be a full-time job.” said Mr. Martell, who estimates he works 10-20 hours a week on average, in addition to running the Wesley Hotel, which he bought in 1985. “Every day there’s something new. We have all kinds of directives from FEMA and MEMA, training requests, information requests. We deal with all kinds of agencies, the one we deal with the most is Coast Guard. We have an excellent relationship with them.”

For the past 38 years, Mr. Martell has been planning and re-planning for the worst eventualities, purely on a volunteer basis. “I drive people crazy with this stuff,” he said, opening a thick binder with the response plan for an Island pandemic. “My job is to plan this out so Mickey Mouse can walk in there, look at this book and set up a site.” The binder contains maps with traffic patterns in and around the Oak Bluffs School where inoculations will be given. There’s a detailed flow chart for foot traffic inside the school.

“The key is getting enough people to do the inoculating,” said Mr. Martell, who timed the recent drive thru flu shots that were given on October 26. “One person did about 40 shots per hour, tops,” he said. “That’s not bad, but it wouldn’t work if there was a pandemic, especially in the summer. We’ll have to teach people how to give a shot. If you can stab an orange, you can give a shot. You have to consider these things.”

Conflict has followed Mr. Martell during his long history of public service. “I’ve got a big mouth, and it gets me in trouble sometimes,” he said with a shrug. After being fired from the fire department in 2008 for insubordination and financial impropriety by then-Chief Peter Forend, Mr. Martell sued the town and won a lengthy, expensive legal battle, for which the town had to foot the bill, to the tune of over $35,000. “They didn’t leave me any choice. It was the only way I could clear my name,” said Mr. Martell, “The court came down firmly on my side. But I was treated like a leper by some people.”

Mr. Martell has also been criticized for being uncooperative with other towns in his duties as Oak Bluffs emergency management director. “People say I don’t get along with the rest of the Island, which is absolutely not the case,” he said. “I’ve always taken the other towns into consideration. I resisted making the high school the regional shelter. We can’t support it, it’s too far out of town. You put a shelter as close to the population base as you can. All the trees that fell in Hurricane Bob made those roads impassible. We could never get an ambulance out there.”

Mr. Martell has also been active obtaining funding for Hurricane Sandy repairs, a total of $4.1 million from FEMA so far, with more pending for East Chop Bluff repairs.

If you want a frank opinion about something in Oak Bluffs, you don’t have to wait long when you speak with Mr. Martell. “I think the design for the new firehouse is all wrong. It’s facing the wrong direction, they say the doors will withstand the winds, but they’ll never get them open. And where are the trucks going to go for 18 months? I still haven’t heard an answer.”

Past battles aside, Oak Bluffs chairman selectmen Walter Vail was effusive in his praise for Mr. Martell. “I think Peter has done an amazing job, and I think we all feel that way,” he said. “When you think about all he’s done for the town, and that he’s done it for free, it’s incredible. We’re really going to miss him.”

Asked if he was going to miss the job, Mr. Martell was quick to answer. “Yes. Absolutely. No two ways about it. It’s an enormous responsibility. To me, it’s actually fun. The challenge is incredible. You’ve got to keep ahead of the issues, you’ve got to keep ahead of the weather, you have to keep ahead of the bad guys.”