The list of Martha’s Vineyard agencies prepared to react immediately in a major Island-wide emergency includes six town police departments, six town fire departments, airport fire crews, four ambulance services, the State Police, and Coast Guard Station Menemsha. These hundreds of men and women are bound by a singular dedication to protecting our Island community — and connected by the radio each responder holds in his or her hand in the midst of an emergency situation.
On Jan. 11, first responders from Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury participated in a training exercise intended to mimic a fire at the Lampost on Circuit Avenue. Over the course of three hours on a Sunday morning, volunteer firemen battled the “blaze,” searched the four-story structure for victims, and rescued a fellow firefighter.
In a follow-up assessment, Oak Bluffs Fire Chief John Rose told The Times the drill highlighted the glaring inadequacy of the radio-communication system. “This has been an Island-wide problem for a while now,” Mr. Rose 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.”
Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling also expressed concern about a radio-communication system he said was designed in the 1960s.
The down-Island fire chiefs and fire department volunteers are to be commended for organizing a drill for an Island-wide emergency that imagines an all-too-real situation. Learning what did not work is just as important as learning what did. One day, the mayday call may be for real.
The Island has been fortunate, and very lucky when we consider the outcome in recent fire emergencies.
On July 4, 2008, a fire broke out in Cafe Moxie on the corner of Spring Street and Main Street in Vineyard Haven. Firefighters rallied quickly, despite the holiday, and contained the blaze. Although the fire caused considerable damage to the adjacent Bunch of Grapes bookstore, there were no injuries. Light winds that day and a quick, professional response were important factors that helped minimize damage to the downtown business district.
Two years later, on July 12, 2010, a fire destroyed the Coast Guard boathouse and numerous boats in Menemsha Harbor. Again, thankfully, there were no injuries. But for a fortuitous wind direction that blew the scorching flames across the water rather than into the harbor shacks, and a quick response by firefighters from across the Island, all of Menemsha might have gone up in flames.
Chief Rose is correct. The situation is completely unacceptable. First responders must be able to communicate effectively.
The current radio network is a hodgepodge of VHF equipment. There is no standard radio. One department uses one radio brand, another department a different brand. Many of the radios do not meet modern state standards. Cross-department communication is cumbersome.
On Friday, Dukes County Sheriff Mike McCormack hosted a meeting of Island public-safety officials and representatives of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) to discuss the radio problem and possible solutions. It was a good start.
Island public-safety officials must work together to create a communications system that is dependable in all circumstances and under all conditions for the volunteers and professionals that man the front lines. Achieving that goal will take regional leadership on a technical and political level. Where will it come from?
The hub of the current system is the Island Communications Center, located at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport and under the control of Sheriff McCormack. Nine full-time telecommunicators staff the center seven days a week, 24 hours a day, skillfully and professionally dispatching help as needed around the Island.
Radio scanners make it possible for any citizen to listen in on most radio traffic. It can be an eye-opening experience for those unfamiliar with the level of activity that often occurs behind the scenes. Listen for any length of time, and you will hear the dispatcher say, “Call unreadable,” meaning the dispatcher was unable to clearly hear the first responder in the field. Unreadable is unacceptable.
The blizzard struck late Monday and lasted through Tuesday night. Throughout the storm, Island first responders — police, firefighters, EMS, and highway department crews — responded to numerous calls for medical assistance.
Unfortunately, their job was made more difficult by the poor judgement of those who decided to venture out during the height of the storm. First responders spent time Tuesday looking for a woman on skis in Long Point thought to be in distress, pulling drivers in stuck cars out of snow banks, and removing cars stuck in the middle of the road and blocking traffic.
In some cases, driving was difficult, and drifting snow made some roads and driveways virtually impassable. That did not stop the first responders. In each case, they found a way to reach those in need of help. Hats off to the first responders.