On Martha’s Vineyard, volunteers fill firefighting ranks

Low pay, hours of training, unpredictable time demands and personal satisfaction come with the job of a volunteer firefighter.

Firefighters prepare to head out on training exercise on the Oak Bluffs fire boat. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

“Never volunteer,” longstanding advice from old military hands to new recruits, has never been in vogue on Martha’s Vineyard, where the six Island towns depend on a volunteer citizenry to fight fire in their communities.

Volunteer firefighting is part of the Island culture, passed like a family heirloom from generation to generation. Pretty simple business in the old days. The siren went off, you left work, dinner or sleep, fired up the Silverado and hoped you weren’t going to pull hose a couple of football fields to the nearest hydrant. Volunteer firefighting still works that way, but today the science and technology is way more complicated than in the past and requires a greater commitment than most of us stay-at-homes imagine.

As a part-time job, volunteer firefighting is not a bread-winner. Annual stipends vary by town, ranging from $1,500 to a few thousand dollars. Residents who could make more money scalloping a few days a month choose this work.

Take the 27 men and one woman who gathered at the Tisbury fire house two weekends ago. They were there Friday night and all day on Saturday and Sunday, their second consecutive weekend of classroom instruction in Fire Officers Principles and Practices.

Over the same two-week period, students were also required to master a 400-page text, and to pass online tests based on their study material. On the following Sunday, they went to Woods Hole for simulation training during which students were presented with interactive videos of virtual emergency scenes which they were expected to assess and manage in real time.

The course is taught by the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy (MFA) in Stow and is a requirement for volunteers who are future managers for Island fire departments. If they pass, students receive certification for their work. The course is also college-accredited.

The roll call that Friday night included Silvas, DeBettencourts, Rolstons, Araujos, Searles, and Roses, Island volunteer firefighting names for generations.

Painting contractor Clay Moreis joined the volunteers after 9/11 to help protect his community. “This course is fantastic, the level of instruction and the opportunity to interact with other Island departments,” he said. “That’s really important because mutual aid is very important. We had a fire at the refuse center recently that took three and a half hours to knock down. We needed help and we got it.”

Mr. Moreis is not figuring to make firefighting a career. “Maybe if I were a younger man, I would pursue firefighting, but I just want to help people in the community,” he said.

Brothers James and Patrick Rolston of Tisbury are attracted by the possibility of firefighting careers, but civic duty prompted them to take the class. James had already completed his online assignments by Friday night. “These discussion groups are informative,” he said.

Brother Patrick, an excavator by trade, said there is a feeling of accomplishment in completing the program. “It’s definitely something you like to have on your resumé,” he said.

Brendan Cooney is a full-time paramedic in Edgartown. The Minnesota native sees the possibility of career advancement. “We’re mostly young,” he said. “We have a lot of time left and from a career perspective, retirements will create openings.

“It’s an interesting job. The fire equipment are amazing machines. We get to work with them. Sure, it’s a little like working out every kid’s fantasy of being a fireman. The sense of brotherhood is important. If anyone in here needs anything, we are there for them.”

There is also the reality that firefighting at any level comes with risks. That lesson was reinforced with the death of two Boston firefighters.

“The loss really hit home,” Mr. Cooney said. “We talked about it in our first safety class. Classes like this that help equip us are very important.”

Joe Flanagan, an MFA instructor and Bill Miller, chief of the Boylston Fire Department, have been teaching the course for years. They take the work seriously, alternately pushing and praising the group. “Hey, guys, I know you worked a full day today, but you’re almost there,” Mr. Miller said to the group.

The classroom discussion took on a somber hue when students and teachers spoke about the fire in Boston earlier in the week that claimed the lives of two firefighters.

“Mike (Kennedy) was in this class four years ago, just like you are now.”  Mr. Miller said of 33-year old Boston firefighter who died in the Back Bay blaze that also claimed the life of Boston fire lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr. “Good man, good firefighter.”

The group facing Mr. Flanagan know the work is potentially dangerous and requires more from them in an increasingly complicated environment. Firefighters must complete 140 hours of training and observation. They must know CPR. Several students in the class are also paramedics.

Brynn Schaffner, a West Tisbury fire lieutenant is also the logistics officer for the Dukes County Fire Training Council, which arranged for the course. Council membership includes the fire chiefs in Dukes County and Timothy R. Carroll, executive secretary for the town of Chilmark.

“Change is constant. I’ve been doing (logistics) for the council for four years and for 10 years in West Tisbury. The constant flow and amount of new information is amazing. These texts are rewritten every three years,” Brynn Schaffner said, pointing to the 400-page book used for principles and practices.

“The changes in protective gear and in automobile technology are examples. Protective equipment has improved. You can’t feel the heat from the fire, a danger sign, so you have to be aware of the fire environment in other ways,” he said

The change in automotive technology can make a challenge of the once-simple act of turning off the ignition of a car involved in an accident to reduce the danger of fire and explosion, he said.

“With hybrids and electric cars, it’s difficult to determine that the ignition is off and in some cases, even where the power source is located,” Mr. Schaffner said. “For example, an (electric) Smart car rolled over on Island the other day. The battery is located under the floorboard on the passenger side. Would you think to look there? But we have a phone app that tells us that.”