Mutual aid: Martha’s Vineyard fire departments work together


When Peter and Nancy Shemeth were wed in 1975, he married not just into a family but also into an important piece of Edgartown’s civic life. Nancy’s father, Alfred Doyle, was fire chief. So it seemed only natural for young Peter, then 23 years old, to join the Edgartown Volunteer Fire Department in 1976.

“A lot of the people I associated with socially were also members of the fire department,” recalled Chief Shemeth, who has led the Edgartown department now for eight years, in a conversation at the department’s offices last Friday that also included Deputy Chief Alex Schaeffer. “It was just the natural next step to join. And from there, it was a progression.”

Mr. Shemeth was assigned to the department’s aerial ladder truck — a Farrar model bought by the town in 1971 — and worked his way up to lieutenant and to captain of the ladder truck for some 25 years. He served as assistant chief under Antone Bettencourt, and became chief of the department in 2006.

The continuities in a small town volunteer fire department run deep. Today, as when he first joined up, said Chief Shemeth, “It’s a brotherhood.”

But forces of change have also been at work. One dramatic difference today is the amount of training involved in becoming a volunteer firefighter. When he first joined the department, Chief Shemeth said, “There wasn’t the formal training we have today. You were taken through your truck until you knew everything about it, and then every once in a while you’d have an all-department practice. Now, the state says you have to be Firefighter One trained; you have to be first responder trained; you have to have CPR and hazmat training. Realistically, it probably takes two years to go through all the training.”

A second big difference relates to the rhythms of Island life. “Everybody back then had a lot more time on their hands than they do now,” Chief Shemeth said. “Young people now are working one job and possibly two, trying to make ends meet.”

Combine the new training requirements with the more hectic pace of Vineyard life, and the result is that Island fire departments are finding it more difficult every year to recruit the volunteers they need. Chief Shemeth doesn’t blame the younger generation: “As for the volunteer aspect of it, I think the majority of people still have that: they still want to get involved and give back to the community. But it’s becoming harder and harder to give the amount of time that’s required.”

Since 1970, the population served by our Island fire departments (and the numbers of flammable structures dotting our landscape) have more than tripled, even as the ranks of volunteer firefighters have begun to ebb. Fortunately, another generational change has come along to make firefighting on the Island more effective: The separate town departments work together more closely, and more smoothly, than they did just a couple of decades ago.

Chief Shemeth recalls how, during his early years with the Edgartown department, calling for mutual aid from another town was rare, something to be avoided. “You didn’t want to call in mutual aid from another town, because that meant you couldn’t handle the situation yourselves,” he said. “You just didn’t call another town unless it was hitting the fan.

“Now that’s changed, because people are so much busier, you don’t have the luxury anymore of everyone being available to show up during the daytime. Now, if Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven or West Tisbury gets a working structure fire, it’s a mutual aid call for one of the neighboring towns — that’s just standard procedure now.

“I look at it, whatever we can do for another department, I’m more than happy to send our personnel and our equipment. Because I know when I need them, there’s not a question: they’ll be here. Now, when we even think we might need mutual aid, we’ll call them and put them on standby.”

So the Island fire departments have met some of the impact of the changes felt in recent years by working better together. But if present trends continue, Chief Shemeth says, we may have to look at adjustments, much like those our emergency medical services have already seen — a shift to a heavier reliance on paid staff.

Neither Chief Shemeth nor Deputy Chief Schaeffer looks forward to this. “The heartbreak that I see in the loss of volunteers in the mix,” said the deputy chief, “is the loss of diversity in the department. I mean, beyond just the camaraderie and the social aspect of it all. Right now, when we have 44 volunteers show up at a scene, we have 44 different perspectives of people who work in different fields and are expert in those fields. You have the builder who knows the framing; you have the plumber who knows the heating system. You have all this knowledge at your disposal at any given time, and that’s tremendously useful.”

The 1971 Farrar ladder truck that Peter Shemeth captained for so many years was replaced in 1995 by a new model. Mounted on the front bumper of that truck is the silver bell that adorned the Farrar and dates back to its predecessor, the 1938 City Service Mack that served the town for more than three decades.

Handed down like that silver bell, the Shemeth family tradition of service continues in the generation of Peter and Nancy’s daughters, Kara and Justine. Kara is a member of the Edgartown Fire Department and an EMT. Justine’s husband, Paulo DeOliveira, is also an Edgartown firefighter and EMT.

Chief Shemeth loves these continuities, and he cherishes the traditions of volunteer service that run through all the Vineyard’s fire departments. “You want to keep the volunteer system as long as it’s viable,” he says. “But we do have to start planning for the future. Because there will come a day.”