SSA drill tests fire response
At 10:10 am Saturday, an ominous general alarm tone sounded on the radios of emergency response personnel around the Island. Firefighters, EMTs and police immediately began to respond to the Steamship Authority ferry dock in Oak Bluffs.
"Fire on the freight deck," said the radio dispatcher through the crackle of radio static.
Within minutes, Oak Bluffs police cruisers arrived and police officers began to block off traffic and clear away pedestrians.
At 10:14, Oak Bluffs Fire Department's Engine 4 pulled out onto the wooden pier. A few moments later, Engine 1 arrived, followed quickly by Rescue 1.
A fire suppression team made up of Oak Bluffs firefighters (from left) Jim Morse, Chris Wiggin, Matt Bradley and Dan Rogers carry a hose onto the smoke-filled freight deck of the Martha's Vineyard. Photos by Ralph Stewart
In the slip was the ferry Martha's Vineyard. As the freight deck loading door slowly opened smoke came pouring out of the vessel.
The emergency was not real, but a drill meant to look and sound real for the men and women who might some day have to face the real thing. The training exercise was designed to replicate the conditions firefighters might face on a busy summer day, if several cars caught fire, trapping passengers and crew aboard the boat.
Smoke generators were used to simulate fire conditions with non-toxic smoke. No flames or live fire were used during the drill, which planners had been working on for months.
Oak Bluffs fire captain Shawn Broadley directs Matt Bradley (left) and Nick Butler.
Within minutes, first responders were learning lessons that could save lives if they ever face a real disaster.
"In the beginning phase we sent in two fire suppression teams, and one search and rescue team," said Oak Bluffs Fire Department Capt. John Rose, who organized the exercise. "Now we're out of personnel, and we're waiting for mutual aid engines to come in and give us a hand."
When necessary, any Island town can ask one or all of the other Island towns to lend assistance under mutual aid agreements.
As smoke seeped from the freight deck, Sean O'Connor, captain of the Martha's Vineyard sounded a continuous blast of the ferry's horn, signaling an emergency on board. A few moments later he sounded seven short, and one long blast, the signal to abandon ship.
Capt. O'Connor told a Times reporter that, even though everyone knew it was a simulation, the sight of smoke pouring out of the Martha's Vineyard was a little disconcerting. "It makes you think of what could be if anything ever really got rolling," he said. "Hopefully, we would never let it get this far. We would immediately charge the sprinkler zones, and the sprinklers would cut down on the amount of smoke on the freight deck. You can't see three feet in front of your face in there. About the only thing you can see is your feet, if you look straight down."
With more personnel arriving, more orders being relayed, more sweat building up inside heavy fire suits, the scene was much like a real fire: hot, noisy, and confusing.
Edgartown firefighter James Dropick carries out a "victim."
Lt. Paul Humber was among the first rescuers to enter the boat, looking for seven mannequins placed aboard earlier to simulate trapped passengers.
"Zero," was how he described the visibility. "The procedure is to stay low, because of the heat, the heat's always above you. Search, feel around, use your feet, your hands. Communications with your team, make sure they always know where you are. It's very realistic."
Oak Bluffs Emergency Medical Services (EMS) set up a triage area on the dock, ready to evaluate rescued passengers for treatment. They also helped firefighters deal with stress and fatigue. No simulation was needed for that part of the drill.
Fire personnel were dealing with a hot, stressful environment, and EMS carefully monitored their condition. When firefighters and rescuers exited the simulated fire scene, they were checked for heart rate, blood pressure, and other basic vital signs before returning to the operation.
Organizers of the drill said that the goal in this kind of training operation is not to have everything go right. It is actually more helpful to have things go wrong, so that weaknesses can be identified and corrected. And much did go wrong.
"A couple of crews got disoriented in there, and thought they were coming out on the passenger deck, and actually had made there way all the way down to the third level, the mezzanine deck," said Capt. Rose, following the first assessment of the drill. "We learned that some of our hand lines, the boat's so long, we have to add hose to the lines. Manpower, we knew was going to be an issue. The guys aren't used to doing shipboard interior attack and search and rescue."
Finding the mannequins proved extremely difficult. It took an hour and 19 minutes after the alarm to get the first six simulated casualties off the ferry. The seventh was located earlier, in crew quarters below the freight deck, but required the use of the Tisbury fire department's technical rescue team because of the confined space. That mannequin was brought out nearly two hours after the first alarm.
Tisbury firefighters (from left) Rob Young, Troy Maciel, and Joe Tierney (not shown) remove a dummy victim from below decks.
Plenty went right, too. For the first time, the three down-Island fire departments utilized the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The system standardizes procedures so that departments from different towns can work together more effectively. A key component of NIMS is the use of tactical channels for radio communication.
"Communication was the best it's ever been in any drills we've had," said Oak Bluffs Assistant Chief Tony Ferreira. "Communications is always a problem; it's unbelievable how well it worked."
Other assessments will take much more study. The vessel has a complex ventilation system. Vents might clear smoke in a real fire, but firefighters are concerned the system might also fuel the flames. "That's going to be a tricky call to make," said Capt. Rose.
Over the next several weeks, organizers will evaluate the training exercise, and begin to put the lessons they learned into practice. In the meantime, Island firefighters and EMS are better equipped to deal with a serious fire aboard a ferry, now that they've had a taste of the real thing.