Organizational shakeup at Oak Bluffs EMS/Fire Department

Personnel board votes to separate Fire and EMS departments.

The Oak Bluffs EMS/Fire Department is reverting to its previous organizational structure. — Stacey Rupolo

Acting on an Oct. 3 report from consultant/retired Brewster fire chief Roy E. Jones, as well as recommendations by Oak Bluffs fire chief John Rose and three members of the Oak Bluffs Fire Department command staff, the personnel board voted 2-1 on Tuesday to split up the fire and EMS departments.

The two departments were combined three years ago, in part because of a recommendation from a previous report by Mr. Jones.

The vote effectively eliminates the firefighter duties of the full-time firefighter/paramedics, the majority of whom voted to join the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) this July, forming IAFF Local 5137.

Their positions were created in an effort to provide better firefighter coverage during daytime hours, when most of the volunteer, or “call” members are at work.

In his memo to Chief Rose and town administrator Robert Whritenour, Mr. Jones wrote that nationwide, combined fire and EMS operations usually work very well in cross-staffing. However, that has not been the case in Oak Bluffs, in large part because of the manpower demands of off-Island transfers, which require EMS staff to spend long hours taking patients to off-Island hospitals, usually in Boston. Per a 1993 contract with Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, Oak Bluffs’ is the only Island ambulance company that makes off-Island transfers.  

“After multiple conversations with Chief Rose and a conference call with the chief, deputy [Shawn] Broadley, and assistant chief Manny Rose, it was agreed that multiple management and operational challenges must be worked out,” Mr. Jones concluded. “In the discussions, it is clear that it would be best to separate the two operations into branches.”

At Tuesday’s personnel board meeting, IAFF Local 5137 president Tom Lambert called Mr. Jones’ recommendations a “one-sided report.” “It only consults the three chiefs. No one else was consulted on this the last two times he came to the department,” he said. “The report is exactly what the chief told you guys last time, word for word, almost. We would like our say.”

Personnel board member Steve Auerbach expressed concern that only three people were interviewed for Mr. Jones’ report.

Taking away firefighting duties from full-time paramedics would leave them with their hands tied during a response to a fire, Mr. Lambert said. Statistics have shown that call firefighter departments take about seven minutes longer to respond than full-time departments, he said. “I don’t think he should get rid of us. I think a restructure of the scheduling will allow for a firefighter to be there all day long.”

Echoing Mr. Jones, Chief Rose said that off-Island transfers take up so much of the full-time firefighter/paramedics’ time, they haven’t taken the strain off the call firefighters during the day, as intended. Monthly drills are always the third Wednesday of every month, and attendance has been sporadic by employees who live off Island, Chief Rose said.

“Everybody has plenty of time to tell their family, to get babysitters and come to the Island and drill as a unit, and they’ve been unable to do that,” he said. “They’re not holding up their end of the bargain. It’s just not beneficial for us to continue down this road.”

He also cited “a growing animosity between the full-time and call-staff members,” which he attributed to full-time firefighter/paramedics missing monthly drills and being paid to drill, while call staff gets no additional pay for the drills.

Personnel board vice chairman Jason Balboni said he’d spoken to a number of call firefighters who said there is a growing rift between the call and full-time staff.

Mr. Lambert acknowledged he had missed a number of drills in the past year, due to child care issues. “People who live on Island have also missed,” he said. “If they know well in advance, they should be here,” Mr. Auerbach said.

Firefighter/paramedic Richard Velez, an off-Island resident, said he often spends the night at the station, which has had the benefit of enabling him to respond to night calls when technically off duty.

Mr. Auerbach asked if a separation of the off-Island transport service had been considered. “That may even be an advantage if you have so many people living off-Island,” he said.

It would be difficult to fund the 911 service independent of the off-Island transport service, Chief Rose said.

“Edgartown has an ambulance budget alone of close to $800,000. Our ambulance budget is $329,000,” he said.

Referring to his experience on the Finance and Advisory Committee (FinCom), John Lolley asked, that with off-Island transfers bringing in so much money, “why can’t we make things go smoother? Sounds like money would solve the problem.”

Regarding the 15-mile state law, Mr. Lambert contended that the town could create an exemption. Town counsel Jack Collins disagreed.

“I love working for Oak Bluffs. I’d move if I had to,” Mr. Lambert said.

Mr. Lambert said the response to last Friday’s house fire proved the need for full-time firefighter/paramedics during the day. “I was the second piece in. The chief had to call three times for extra help from extra towns because there weren’t enough people. Had another firefighter been there, the two of us could have made an attack on the fire.”

Chief Rose sharply disagreed with Mr. Lambert’s assessment. “He was the third truck to leave the station. Two call fire trucks left their jobs, left their homes, got to the station, and rolled out before the full-time person got a piece of apparatus on the road,” he said.

Chief Rose said that mutual aid in a house fire is standard operating procedure. “That’s not something I call for. That’s an automatic, established system,” he said.

Personnel board member Steve Auerbach questioned the discrepancy in Mr. Lambert’s and Chief Rose’s accounts.

Mr. Lambert said the two call trucks were out before him, manned by one person, and his delay was caused by orders from Capt. James Maseda, who instructed him to wait three minutes for someone else to come. “I was in the truck, had it running, waiting for other people to come,” he said.

Chief Rose said he was not aware of any such order by Capt. Maseda.

“We’ve never had a policy where you’ve had to wait for a second firefighter to get there,” he said.

Mr. Lolley questioned why Chief Rose didn’t know about Capt. Maseda’s order. “You need to look around to see if there’s other stuff like this you don’t know about in the department,” he said.

The final vote was 2-1. Mr. Balboni and Mr. Auerbach voted for the division. Mr. Lolley voted against it, citing concerns about maintaining qualified staff. “Look how many department heads come from off Island,” he told The Times after the vote. “If there’s a plan in place, I may change my mind.”