As smoke billowed out of the Lampost early Sunday morning, first responders from Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and Edgartown raced to the scene and quickly took their pre-assigned positions. Over the course of the next three hours, firemen battle the “blaze,” searched the four-story structure for victims and rescued a fellow firefighter.
As firemen rolled up the hoses that criss-crossed Kennebec and passers-by did double takes at the victims lying on the ground — mannequins that had been hidden in the building — Chief John Rose provided an assessment of the morning drill. “Overall it went pretty well,” he told The Times.
Mr. Rose said the drill provided valuable information about where to best place equipment, especially Tisbury Fire Tower 1, a ladder engine equipped with a crane and a bucket that can put a firefighter eye level with a blaze, or a struggling victim, on the fifth floor.
Mr. Rose said the glaring inadequacy of the radio communication system was a particular concern. “This has been an Island wide problem for a while now,” he said. “We knew it was an issue but we didn’t realize the extent of it until today. There were times I couldn’t get commands to my men because their radios weren’t working properly. When the Rapid Intervention Team went in on a Mayday call to save a fellow firefighter, they weren’t able to communicate with him and we couldn’t hear where they were. That’s completely unacceptable.”
Mr. Rose said the exercise took months of planning between him and Edgartown fire chief Peter G. Shemeth, and Tisbury fire chief John Schilling. “It’s good to know these two departments have our backs, because if there is a fire in the downtown area, God forbid, we’re going need to act quickly. I think everybody has a much better idea of their role after today,” he said.
Mr. Rose said grant applications have been submitted to obtain funding infrastructure improvements, such as additional radio transmission towers. “One way or another, we have to do something,” he said.
“We learned a lot about placement of apparatus on Circuit Ave., particularly with Tower 1,” Chief John Schilling told The Times. “It was a challenge to put up ladders at the front of the building because of the sharp slope of the terrain. There’re also a lot of challenges managing personnel at a scene that size.”
Mr. Schilling also expressed concern about the sketchy radio communication. “We need to address our communication challenges,” he said. “We’re using a system that was designed in the 1960’s, where everything flows through one central dispatch. That doesn’t work in a mutual aid situation.”
Mr. Schilling said there will be a meeting next week with all Island fire and police chiefs and representatives from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) to address the problem. “Somewhere along the line we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to transition to a new system, unfortunately it’s going to be a significant dollar figure,” Mr. Schilling said.