A look inside the airport's fire and rescue department discovers front line dedication
Marques Rivers. Photos by Ezra Blair
When a well-known Island pilot crashed his home-built airplane into the state forest just short of the Martha's Vineyard Airport runway in a fatal accident last month, a group of specially trained fire and rescue personnel were the first to respond.
They were members of the Martha's Vineyard airport fire and rescue department, a squad of 11 full-time emergency responders trained in airport disaster response.
While they are at the front lines when an airplane goes down, or during any other mishap at the airport, the firefighters are also responsible for a long list of regular daily duties - from mowing grass and plowing the runways to refueling airplanes. But when the emergency siren blares out across the airport, the firefighters have to drop what they are doing and spring into action.
Despite the small size of the facility, the Martha's Vineyard Airport handles a great deal of air traffic every year.
Airport manager Sean Flynn, who has also completed the firefighting and rescue training course, said that there is a serious accident at the airport about once every year. During the busy summer months, the airport fire department is put on standby for a potential emergency at least once a week. The standby calls are reduced to about once a month this time of year.
To prepare for the wide variety of potential emergencies at an airport, the fire department has to train regularly - 56 hours a year, in 13 different areas, to be precise.
Every year the airport must conduct a so-called "table top" drill, where airport officials discuss a hypothetical emergency and how they would respond to it. Every three years the airport must conduct a full-scale live training exercise. The next live drill is scheduled for this spring.
Airport emergencies present a unique set of problems for firefighters and rescue personnel. Unlike house fires, where most of the material is wood, a burning airplane often includes a great deal of hazardous material.
"When you're dealing with an airplane you're dealing with a unique set of materials," said Mr. Flynn. "Along with large amounts of fuel, the substances that make up an airplane include composite materials and different kinds of metals that can be very dangerous. For instance, some engines are made out of magnesium. When you get a magnesium fire, you can't use water to extinguish it. Water will actually give it more oxygen and make it burn hotter. Instead we have to use special chemical fire extinguishers to put it out."
In addition to the materials involved, time is always a factor in airplane accidents.
"Time is everything in an aircraft fire," said Mr. Flynn. "We have what they call a three-minute burn through, meaning that aircraft bodies are designed so that if there is a fire on the exterior, they will breach after three minutes. That makes our response time critical."
At least once every three months the airport conducts a response-time drill for the airport fire and rescue department. On Friday, while a Times reporter watched from the air traffic control tower, Mr. Flynn initiated a surprise drill.
With a bird's-eye view of the airport grounds from the air traffic control tower, Mr. Flynn sounded the emergency alarm. Seconds later emergency responders radioed the tower for further directions. The air traffic controller told them that it was an exercise and that the airport's two fire trucks had to respond to the midpoint of one of the runways and spray water.
Gary Coates Jr.
Response-time standards require the drill to be executed within three minutes. Less than 90 seconds after the alarm sounded the two specialized fire trucks had raced across the runway and had drenched the tarmac with a deluge of water from large turrets. "That was pretty good," said Mr. Flynn as he watched the trucks return to the airport to refill their water tanks.
Mr. Flynn said that the airport fire department has improved drastically over the last five years, ever since former airport manager Bill Weibrecht was hired and instituted a rigorous training program for the department.
"The department has grown by leaps and bounds since they began the new training," said Mr. Flynn. "They take their jobs very seriously, and they do an absolutely fantastic job."
Mr. Flynn, who is a licensed pilot, said he takes pride and assurance in having a professional airport and rescue department at the facility. "I fly in and out of this airport and I take great comfort in knowing these guys are down there," he said.
On Friday a Times reporter visited the airport fire and rescue department and spoke with the on-duty firefighters about the difficulties and the rewards of their jobs.
The five firefighters not on duty on Friday were Geoffrey Freeman, Jaime Gaspar, Adam Friedman, E. Ralph Smith, and Robert Oslyn.
Marques Rivers, of Oak Bluffs, is a lieutenant on Engine Three in the Oak Bluffs Fire Department, where he has worked as a volunteer firefighter for the last 10 years. His grandfather, Dennis Alley, is the Oak Bluffs fire chief. "Firefighting is in the family," said Mr. Rivers, who began working for the airport fire department several years ago after responding to an advertisement in the newspaper.
Mr. Rivers said that aviation firefighting presents a unique set of challenges that he had not previously encountered in structural firefighting. "There was definitely a lot to learn," he said. "Like all the different components of airplanes, what kind of airplanes there are, and all the different materials that are involved. It's really interesting."
While he said firefighting is exciting, it can also be difficult. Mr. Rivers, who is also an EMT said that he was one of the firefighters to respond to the scene when James Rogers's plane went down in the state forest last month.
"As a firefighter that was probably one of the toughest things I have had to deal with since I have been on the job here, or in Oak Bluffs," he said, adding that there is always a human factor when dealing with aircraft emergencies. "Sometimes when you go to a house fire and there is nobody in the house, but every time an airplane crashes there is at least one person in the airplane."
But when the emergency siren sounds, Mr. Rivers said that all thoughts, except the task at hand, vanish. "You just go on autopilot," he said. "You don't even think about anything except exactly what you are supposed to do, and you just go."
The excitement of the firefighting and being able to help people is what makes the job so enjoyable, Mr. Rivers said.
"It's a great job," he said. "I love coming to work."
Rich Michelson, of Oak Bluffs, an operations specialist, has been working for the airport fire department for nearly nine years. He is also an EMT-intermediate and a lieutenant on the Oak Bluffs ambulance squad.
Mr. Michelson said the job is challenging and both physically and emotionally demanding, but it is also very rewarding. "The EMS [emergency medical services] is without a doubt the most rewarding part of this job," he said. "I like the challenge, and I like helping people."
Mr. Michelson said every emergency call is "heart pounding.... There is a lot of adrenaline, and it can be very stressful, but your response becomes automatic," he said. "You just do what you were trained to do."
Mr. Michelson said that many people don't realize what the airport fire and rescue department does, or that it even exists. "I have been here almost nine years, and so many times when I'm out in the community I come across people who have no idea what we do out here," he said. "The volunteer fire departments on the Island are absolutely excellent, but people should know that we are up here too, and that we are full-time department."
He added, "No matter what we are doing, if we are refueling a plane or mopping a floor, firefighting comes first, rescue comes first. That is what we train to do, and that is why we are here."
Gary Coates Jr., of Aquinnah, who is a volunteer firefighter in Chilmark and an EMT with Tri-Town Ambulance, has been working at the airport fire department for almost three years.
Like his fellow firefighters, Mr. Coates said that helping people makes the job both rewarding and exciting. "I was volunteering for the fire department and for the ambulance, and when I saw the ad in the paper that they were looking for people at the airport I jumped at the opportunity," he said. "It was something I really wanted to do, both firefighting and the rescue part."
Mr. Coates said that firefighting is the most exciting part of the job. "I think it's in my blood," he said. "I just enjoy the excitement and being able to help people."
The small Island community can make the job particularly challenging said Mr. Coates. He said that every time the emergency siren goes off there is the fear that someone he knows could be hurt. "Some of those calls there is always the possibility that it is someone you know," he said.
But Mr. Coates said the fear has to be put aside during an emergency. "All you can think about is performing your job and providing care to whoever needs it," he said. "You have to block out if it is someone you know and try to deal with it later. You have to focus, that's it."
Despite the physical and emotional stress of the job, Mr. Coates said he enjoys the work. "It's fun," he said. "I enjoy what I do, and hopefully I will be able to keep doing it for a long time."
Eric Hatt, of Oak Bluffs, began working for the airport fire department in 1999 after working for Cape Air for a number of years.
A newcomer to firefighting, Mr. Hatt said that when he applied for the job he didn't realize the responsibility and the amount of worked that would be involved. "It's very intimidating getting into it for the first time," he said. "I don't think people have any idea the amount of responsibility we have as far as the firefighting and the training that we have to go through, and the demands of it."
Even after working in the airline industry, Mr. Hatt said that he did not realize the amount of behind-the-scenes work that the airport fire department does. He stressed that when the airport fire firefighters are not responding to an emergency, they are helping to keep the airport running.
"Our job covers a lot of ground," he said. "You could be in a tractor at the far end of the field mowing grass, or refueling a $50 million jet, or cleaning up a spill in the bathroom, or picking up trash in the business park, and the alarm will go off and you have to respond. There is a lot of responsibly involved."
While the job keeps him busy, Mr. Hatt said he likes the "controlled chaos.... I like it when it's busy. Summer is my favorite time when it starts right at 6 am and it goes right through the day, and it's just madness, but firefighting is always right there in the background. You try and listen to every transmission over the radio, and it keeps you busy. I like that."
Since he began working for the airport, Mr. Hatt said that the fire department has grown and improved by leaps and bounds. "It is night and day from what it used to be," he said. "When I started we had one truck, and very little training. That wasn't anyone's fault, but it was a different airport then. The traffic was substantially less than it is now, and it has grown and improved steadily every year. I think the training and the equipment has grown with the airport's needs."
He attributed much of the improvements to Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn. "I think Bill Weibrecht and Sean Flynn were able to see the future better than prior management, and they have really made a big difference."
Ryan Collins, of Vineyard Haven, is one of the newest members of the airport fire department. He is the operations clerk for the airport, but added firefighting to his job description in June.
Firefighting was an option for his position as operations clerk, and originally Mr. Collins said that he thought it was something he would never be interested in doing.
"I had never thought I would be interested in firefighting," he said. "But after being around it, it seemed really interesting to me."
With no prior firefighting or rescue experience, Mr. Collins said that the extensive training was a daunting task. "I felt like I was the only one who didn't already know all the terminology and everything else," he said. "At first it was very challenging, but once I got up to speed and began to feel comfortable, I enjoyed it."
Mr. Collins said that firefighting has given him a new perspective on airport operations. "Before, when the crash alarm would sound I would be the one sitting there wishing I was out there helping," he said. "Now I can get out there and help."
Mr. Collins summed up airport fire and rescue work in two words - "adrenaline rush.... It definitely gets the adrenaline pumping when you hear that alarm," he said. "I was at a store the other day and heard a sound similar to the crash alarm, and it definitely made me jump out of my shoes."
Like his fellow firefighters, Mr. Collins said the difficulties of the job are overshadowed by the ability to help people.
"Being able to help somebody, being able to get to an accident and help people is the most rewarding part," he said. "Of course the nature of it is that you can't always save everybody. There are going to be tragedies, but when you can help somebody, when you can save somebody, it is very rewarding."