Firefighters brave bitter temps for ice rescue drill

West Tisbury FD hosts Aquinnah and Tisbury for life-saving practice on frozen cove.


Three Vineyard fire departments drilled on West Tisbury’s Pear Tree Cove Sunday at the tail end of an historically frigid morning. In cold-resistant suits, firefighters from Aquinnah, Tisbury, and West Tisbury used ice sleds to rescue a mannequin from a hole chainsawed through brackish ice. Though it’s unclear precisely how cold it was at 11 am when the drill began, National Weather Service meteorologist Lenore Correia said that Martha’s Vineyard Airport reported a record-breaking 1°F at 8 am, with a wind chill of -18°.

Aquinnah Fire Chief Simon Bollin described the temperature Sunday as “dreadful,” but argued that it does crews no good to practice in comfortable weather.

“I’m a firm believer in training in the conditions you’re going to be working in,” he said. West Tisbury Fire Lt. Brynn Schaffner told The Times that rescues from thin ice are the most common, and therefore drilling on thin ice is more valuable, but they worked with the ice that was there, and still got plenty out of doing so. He estimated the cove was frozen four inches — for brackish ice, the thickest he recalls his department training on.

During the exercises, “Victim Vinny,” the West Tisbury Fire Department rescue mannequin, was ferried over that ice multiple times on two different flat sleds and a pontoon sled after being plucked from the freezing water. Even though the shoreline was packed with firefighters, many of whom have medical skills, a Tri-Town Ambulance crew was on location during the drill in case something went wrong out on the ice.

Before the exercise began, firefighters congregated at West Tisbury Fire Station One on Edgartown–West Tisbury Road. At approximately 10:30, West Tisbury Fire Capt. Kenny Mastromonaco conducted a review of the three types of rescue sleds they would use. He told the crews that he was conducting the review in the warmth of the station and not onsite because he wanted to preserve their endurance for the drill. After the review, firefighters carpooled in their private trucks, making their way down slick dirt roads off New Lane and parking in one of the sprawling fields at Flat Point Farm.

Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling said Sunday was a “brutal day” for firefighters to be out training. “We’re very proud of them,” he said. While not present at the Pear Tree Cove drill, Chief Schilling said he and his department would be out on Lagoon Pond Monday night for similar exercises.

“Ice doesn’t last long on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said pointing out the importance of Island departments drilling whenever it forms.

The lowest recorded temperature on Martha’s Vineyard prior to Sunday morning was 7° in 2015, meteorologist Correia said. Though perhaps not still 1° by 11 am on Sunday, “it was bitter cold,” Lt. Schaffner wrote in an email, “and although we all dressed warmly, I was very appreciative of everyone who came out to drill and support the drill. That goes above and beyond what is normally expected.”

Different Island fire departments often have different tools, or for Sunday’s drill, different sleds and rescue suit types, Lt. Schaffner said. It’s very helpful to have a working understanding of neighboring firefighters’ equipment, and to drill with them when becoming familiar with that equipment, he said.

“The more we work together with drills,” he wrote, “the more comfortable we feel with each other when we work together during an emergency.”

West Tisbury Fire Department personnel who hosted and participated in the exercises included Capt. Eric Medeiros, Capt. Kenny Mastromonaco, Lt. Brynn Schaffner, Lt. Louis de Geofroy, and firefighters Alex Dorr, Mike Hull, Tony Cordray, and Glenn DeBlase.

Aquinnah Fire Department personnel who participated in the exercises included Chief Simon Bollin, Lt. Ken Cotrill, and firefighters Russell Long, Gordon Perry, and Ben Monreau.

Tisbury Fire department personnel who participated in the drill included Capt. Glen Pinkham, Lt. Jason Robinson, and firefighters Greg Leland, Dan Martino, George Mederios, Ryan Welty, and Michael Wilson.

Tri-Town personnel who provided onsite coverage for the exercises included Deputy Chief Matt Montanile, EMT Phil Hollinger, and EMT Ann Stone.