Chilmark would improve beach rescue access
Chilmark selectmen last week met with town police, fire, and beach officials to discuss ways in which the town might improve its practices and procedures for responding to emergencies along some of the town's more remote or inaccessible sections of shoreline.
Another issue was the balance between public safety and public enjoyment and recreation, specifically the circumstances under which selectmen would close town beaches. A large ocean storm in August caused strong surf and led to the decision of selectmen to close Squibnocket Beach to surfers and sightseers. That decision generated howls of protest.
Two incidents last summer highlighted the difficulties that rescue personnel face when attempting to respond to emergencies where the people reporting an emergency may be unfamiliar with the exact location or the location is in a remote area that is hard to reach.
On August 1, Lawrence Shedd, 49, of South Danbury, N.H., drowned at Quansoo Beach in Chilmark.
Confusion over Mr. Shedd's precise location hampered the rescue efforts of emergency personnel, who initially responded to the West Tisbury side of the Tisbury Great Pond opening, the narrow manmade cut in the long barrier beach that allows water to flow between the salt pond and the Atlantic Ocean.
Several people forded the tidal stream to reach Mr. Shedd and give first aid, as paramedics and police in emergency vehicles from four Island towns attempted to reach the location, first from the West Tisbury side and then from Chilmark.
One week later, on August 7, William K. Laidlaw Jr., 66, of Columbus, Ohio, a long-time seasonal visitor to the Island here with his family on vacation, died off South Abel's Hill Beach, a difficult to reach strip of barrier beach between the western end of Chilmark Pond and the ocean.
Rescue personnel used an all terrain vehicle to transport Mr. Laidlaw to the edge of the pond, then ferried him by boat to a waiting ambulance.
Referencing both incidents, Chilmark Police Chief Brian Cioffi told selectmen last Tuesday that he had met with other town beach and public safety officials and the goal was to work together to develop an emergency plan for town beaches along both the north and south shores.
Chief Cioffi described some of the logistical problems along the south shore, including limited or nonexistent access for vehicles and ATVs.
For example, Quansoo Beach, a popular private beach off Tisbury Great Pond, is reached from a parking lot by crossing a small footbridge. When emergency personnel responded in August, the only ATV access was through Black Point Beach or Hancock Beach to the west.
Mr. Cioffi said he had met with representatives of the Quansoo Beach Association (QBA) about possibly widening the footbridge to allow for emergency ATV access.
Some QBA members suggested that Black Point met the need. Mr. Cioffi said he explained that in the case of the fatality at Quansoo, emergency personnel performed CPR while walking beside the ATV. "The distance from the Quansoo bridge to the Black Point parking lot is probably about 20 to 25 minutes walking beside a four-wheeler," Mr. Cioffi said. "That is time we don't want to deal with as far as trying to help a victim."
Selectmen Warren Doty said that Quansoo Beach attracts the most people to the water and that working with the QBA was very important. He added that while the beach owners might like the funky nature of their bridge, if they want expeditious rescue services, they might have to give a little and improve the situation.
Mr. Cioffi said he had met with representatives of beach associations along the south shore, and there was general agreement to support any efforts to improve safety.
One suggestion under discussion, he said, is creation of a system that would assign identification numbers to specific beaches for purposes to help visitors unfamiliar with their exact location, when they are at the beach.
He said it is also important to consider the North Shore. There could be ways, Mr. Cioffi said, to improve access or map existing access points. That information could also be made available to department personnel and other emergency responders who might be unfamiliar with the terrain and roads, particularly in situations involving mutual aid.
Chilmark Fire Chief David Norton suggested that the various beach association mailing lists could be used as a means of communicating with beachgoers and bringing association members into the discussion of how to provide better emergency access. "I want to thank everybody who does respond to these things," he added. "I mean for one person in danger there's 50, 60, 70 people responding. It's hard to say on the rescue side how many people are going to respond ... there are a lot of people involved."
Martina Mastromonaco, Chilmark beach superintendent and Tri-Town Ambulance coordinator, said the recent tragedies provided opportunities to learn. "The problem is two-fold," she said. "The people need to know where they are, and we need to know how to get to them and what resources we are going to need." She said the issues are common to the three up-Island towns.
Ms. Mastromonaco endorsed the idea of a numbering system along the South Shore. For example, she said four-by-four numbered wooden posts would be inexpensive and unobtrusive. "Because if they (people calling for help) don't know where they are, how are we going to get to them?" she asked. "And that was a big part of our problem this summer."
Chief Cioffi and Ms. Mastromonaco also raised the issue of poor radio reception and difficulties EMTs and lifeguards encounter communicating on emergency channels. Ms. Mastromonaco said there had been instances where she had called for help from Squibnocket on the emergency channel and was not heard, so she switched to the police channel.
J.B. Riggs Parker, chairman of the selectmen, said the situations Ms. Mastromonaco described made it clear that the town needed improved cell phone service, now nonexistent along many parts of the South Shore.
Mr. Parker advocates a distributed antennae system that would provide wireless signals without high towers. That proposal has been met with some opposition. The selectman appealed to town residents to push for better service.
"It is a safety situation," Mr. Parker said. "We need to get it. And the more citizens who support it, the more likely we are to get it. There are always voices who are opposed to things like cell service, but I don't think any of those voices would be heard if it were their child or their husband or their wife who was in trouble and needed medical help, and cell service can help."
In response to a question from selectman Frank Fenner and a comment that the North Shore must not be left out of the planning process, Chief Cioffi said he will begin working with other town officials now so the town would be prepared next summer season.
"I think this board supports you 100 percent," Mr. Parker said.
The issue of when to close town beaches inspired no easy solutions. Surfers were incensed last August when the town closed Squibnocket Beach, including one man who made such a fuss that police arrested him for disturbing the peace. Some residents were also irritated that the parking lot was closed, so they could not park, get out of their cars, and watch the surf crash against the shore.
Mr. Parker said he thought the town did the right thing when it closed the beach last August. He said if town officials do not think conditions are safe, they must move to close the beach.
Mr. Fenner asked why the town should accept any responsibility in a situation that was out of its control.
One member of the beach committee said that people who decide to surf do so at their own risk.
Mr. Doty said, "Some beaches are public, and some beaches are private, but our ambulance and our police department is going to respond to every incident."
Selectmen agreed that it is important to have a plan in place by next season. After some discussion they agreed to put the issue in the portfolio of the beach committee and let the members of that committee wrestle with the issues and make recommendations.