Edgartown Firemen Association to the rescue

Edgartown gets gifts to seniors.

Micah Agnoli, left, shown here with his then-Edgartown colleagues, is now in self-quarantine. -Michael Cummo

On a bright and early Sunday morning just before Christmas, members of the Edgartown Firemen’s Association gather at the fire station. They load dozens and dozens of gift bags — dutifully prepared by members of the department in their spare time — into numerous department vehicles. Their mission for the day? Distribute the gift bags to elderly members of the community. For the next several hours, the firefighters and EMTs will deliver the gift bags to elderly residents of Edgartown, inspired by a long tradition, holiday spirit and community goodwill.

The Firemen’s association consists of current firefighters and EMTs for the town as well as an advisory committee and honorary members. In 1952, the association picked up a gift-giving tradition that the fire department had started in 1938. Since then, the recipients and the gifts have changed. “In 1938 we started giving out stockings to school kids in Edgartown,” said retired Captain Richard Kelly. At some point after school in December, the classes would walk from the Edgartown School to the town hall and each student would get their turn to receive a stocking before heading home. “Grades one through four would go through the town hall and get a stocking from Santa.”

Back then, the stockings contained a banana, an orange and a handful each of candy and walnuts. When the department transitioned to delivering the bags to senior citizens, the contents of the gift bags stayed over, but some problems became readily apparent. “We transitioned to sugar-free candy in the stockings due to concerns that arose with the health needs of some of the recipients, such as those with diabetes,” said firefighter and EMT Kara Shemeth.

Over time, the firemen’s association decided that the food items should be replaced with items that might come in handy during times of emergency or disaster. In recent years, for instance, the bags contained flashlights that plugged into the wall to charge and could turn on automatically if the power went out.

What hasn’t changed, however, is how the gifts get put together: the hard work of association members and the generosity of town residents. “The Firemen’s Association purchases the items through the funding we receive from the appeal letter,” said Lieutenant Jake Sylvia, a paramedic who is also the current Association President. “It’s one of the best things we can do to give back to the community. The association’s head table gets together and figures out the best items to include in the gift bags.” After the group’s December meeting, members stay late, assembling the items into the bags with care and grouping them to be loaded into the trucks for delivery. While holiday spirit and community goodwill are certainly driving forces behind the program, pragmatic concerns and planning for the work of the Fire Department are also high on the list.

Beyond generating goodwill and generosity, there are tangible operational advantages to going out and making contact with these members of the community at home. Emergency medical technicians might, for instance, make mental notes about how best to maneuver a stretcher to the front door of a residence. Elsewhere, firefighters may notice that power lines running near a house would necessitate careful positioning of the ladder truck if it were ever needed to douse a fire. These observations could prove invaluable in the event of an emergency, and often times they can only be done in person. “The program gives us a chance to locate houses that are off the beaten path,” said Kate Conde, a paramedic and longtime association member.

Through all of this, the association members involved don’t lose sight of the main focus of the program: the people. “Oftentimes we are invited inside, giving us the opportunity to glean a little information on how these folks are living,” added Ms. Conde. A three-minute conversation between the first responders and the residents can provide a bright moment for a resident and valuable information for medical personnel. “It’s community outreach and face time with residents,” said Lt. Sylvia. “We’re also meeting the seniors of the town so they have some familiarity with us if we ever respond to them while they’re in need.”

One crew found out that a resident had undergone a recent surgery. So, if responders hear that address on a dispatch in the near future, they may have an opportunity to use the knowledge gained during the delivery of the gift bag to be better prepared when they arrive on scene and make patient contact. In addition, residents may spot a familiar face among the first responders, which can add a valuable element of comfort to an otherwise stressful and hectic situation. Of course, the members hope they never have to use any information they pick up during the deliveries. But if the spread of holiday cheer can help emergency responses go more smoothly, what’s not to like?