Oak Bluffs fire department will drill with SSA for ferry disaster
Saturday, don't be alarmed by what you see at the Steamship Authority (SSA) dock in Oak Bluffs. Starting at about 9:30 am. The Oak Bluffs fire department is scheduled to stage a drill, simulating a fire aboard a Steamship Authority vessel, to better prepare emergency responders for saving lives.
"The boat will look like it's really on fire," said Capt. John Rose of the Oak Bluffs Fire Department, "especially when we enter the boat, there will be smoke pouring out. It will be realistic."
The drill will involve as many as 40 firefighters and 10 to 15 ambulance personnel from Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and Tisbury. It will simulate a large fire on the freight deck, with someone trapped in crew quarters below, and people trapped on the two passenger decks above.
Captain John Rose of the Oak Bluffs fire department plans for a disaster drill simulating a fire aboard the ferry Martha's Vineyard. Photo by Steve Myrick
There will not be any live fire, and no flames, used in the drill, but there will be plenty of smoke, supplied by three smoke generators used in firefighter training. The smoke is non-toxic, and will not damage the vessel, but it will simulate low visibility conditions firefighters could face in such a scenario.
"We have to do an interior attack on the freight deck to knock down the fire, and search and rescue on the two passenger decks," said Captain Rose.
Oak Bluffs will send all available equipment and personnel. Edgartown and Tisbury will send engine companies and firefighters. Tisbury will also send its specialized confined rescue team.
"Part of this drill is to extricate somebody that was trapped down in the crew quarters below deck," said Capt. Rose. "They have the pulleys and stuff you need to pull somebody up safely from a space that's really confined, where you can't get a lot of hands down there."
The exercise is carefully designed to simulate a worst-case possibility. Cars will be positioned on the freight deck, as well on the pier's staging and standby areas, as if it were a busy day at the height of the summer season. The simulated fire will begin as the ferry is approaching the slip, at the time when passengers would be active on the freight deck. The only people aboard will be the ferry captain and crew, but ten mannequins will be used to simulate people trapped throughout the passenger decks. Firefighters will have to find them in the thick smoke, and get them to safety.
Coordination was no simple task. This kind of drill has been through various plans of staging three times before, but weather or boat schedules forced postponement. The SSA ferry Martha's Vineyard will be used for the exercise. The ferry has been out of commission for maintenance, and is due to resume regular service the day after the drill. The timing is finally right.
"It's a once in a blue moon type thing," said Marc Hanover, Vineyard SSA board member. "It will cost us about $6,000 for the day, because you have to have a full crew."
Mr. Hanover says it will be money well spent, if there is ever a need to respond to a real disaster. "I'm not aware of any other place that has done something like this. They're being very proactive."
Planners hope the drill will reveal both strong and weak elements of the firefighting and rescue plan. That is already happening.
"There's so many logistic components about this drill," said Capt. Rose. "We're already learning major things about the Steamship that we didn't know before, about communications with the boat, what their policies and procedures are when they have an evacuation or a fire on board, how we're going to get our water source, how are we going to piece together the right equipment down there when the dock is full of cars, and you can't get the whole Oak Bluffs fire department down there."
The drill will also give the three down-Island fire departments a chance to utilize a new standard called the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a procedural structure that allows different fire departments to work together within nationally accepted standards of operation.
"There was no unified system, so these big events, you would be calling in mutual aid from three counties over, and their systems were entirely different. With this system, if Falmouth calls Oak Bluffs for some reason for mutual aid, we'll be able to walk right in and know how Falmouth's structure is for their system."
Access to the dock area will be strictly limited during the drill, but the fire department expects the exercise will draw some observers, so there will be an area set aside for the curious along Seaview Avenue near the bath house.