Chilmark raises Tri-Town Fire Department idea

Officials laud fatal vehicle crash response, but call out communication glitches.

Left to right: selectman Warren Doty, selectman Jim Malkin, and selectmen chairman Bill Rossi at Tuesday's meeting in Chilmark Town Hall. — Rich Saltzberg

Chilmark will gauge the appetite of its up-Island neighbors for a unified fire department modeled after Tri-Town Ambulance. In a unanimous vote at the board’s Tuesday night meeting, Chilmark selectmen authorized letters to Aquinnah and West Tisbury to explore interest in a merger of their fire departments. The selectmen will give their neighbors a month to respond.

Selectman Jim Malkin put forward the idea in the midst of discussion about planning for Chilmark’s new fire station. He said he “heard from a number of members of our fire department” who are concerned the department might grow too thin due to a lack of new volunteers. In light of this, he said, station design may need to be tailored to a different department configuration than what the town is currently used to, and the town may need to rethink the department overall.

“It’s difficult to find people who want to do it nowadays on a volunteer basis,” he said, referring to volunteer emergency service. He noted this was a national trend. “Younger people aren’t interested. The amount of training that you are mandated to get — and you’re not paid to do the training; the personal risk that you take on from all sorts of things that you’re exposed to while you’re doing this makes it less attractive to younger people,” he said.

“And there’s a concern that in five or 10 years down the road, we are not going to have a volunteer fire force because we’re not going to have people. And if that’s the case, I wonder whether it’s time for our town and West Tisbury and Aquinnah to look at — just as we have a Tri-Town Ambulance Service — the impact and the issues around having a Tri-Town Fire Department. Because if we were to do that, if there’s an appetite for that, that would have impact on what we wind up building here,” he said.

“I’m all for doing a study. I think it’s kind of long overdue, frankly,” selectmen chairman Bill Rossi said.

Mr. Malkin said Chilmark will need a station regardless of what the future holds, but pointed out the importance of distinguishing between “[a] precinct station versus a full station.”

Along those lines, Chilmark Fire Department captain Robert Coutinho cautioned about spending too much too soon on a station.

“If we build something and all of a sudden there’s no one there to man [it], we’ve got something that we don’t need,” he said.

He spoke in favor of exploring a collective department, and agreed that the department was headed for a personnel drain.

“In 10 years I’m going to be gone,” he said. “I know quite a few other people are going to be gone.”

In addition to authorizing correspondence with its neighbors about merging fire departments, the selectmen voted unanimously to send a letter to the town’s fire station consultant expressing the town’s continued interest in retaining him, with the caveat that he should be prepared for some potential design changes.

Fatal accident response

At the request of selectman Warren Doty, town emergency officials gave some accounts of the response to the Jan. 12 fatal SUV accident on Middle Road. High school student Jake Baird was killed, and his two passengers were injured, in the early-morning accident.

Tri-Town Deputy Chief Matt Montanile told the selectmen he wasn’t on scene but could relay what he’d gathered.

“From what I have heard from people who were there, it was managed very well; there were ample resources,” he said. “A ton of firemen and a ton of EMTs showed up … everybody received the best care that they could have.”

He also noted something captain Coutinho later elaborated on — faulty communications:

“Maybe there was a little bit of [a] communication problem at the incident command level, but other than that, I’ve heard nothing but good things,” he said. “We did have a [critical] stress debriefing that was very well attended the Sunday after the accident.”

Reached by telephone after the meeting, Tri-Town Ambulance Chief Ben Retmier said the debriefing involved consolers who helped the first responders and dispatchers process emotions stemming from the accident. In addition, he said it served to help them “understand everything that may have happened on the scene, including things they may have not been aware of.”

“On that call the communication [was] off about nine minutes,” captain Coutinho said.

“There’s something going on with the communication down there. Somebody needs to fix something down there. I don’t know if it’s bad equipment or whatnot, but anyway, I arrived nine minutes too late. Meaning, when I got there, the ambulance — EMS — they had those people packed up and practically gone.”

The captain didn’t, however, say that the communication delay translated into insufficient response. He praised the response and the work of his colleagues at the scene:

“They were so amazing. I mean I can’t give them enough credit for what they did on that scene,” he said. He described the emergency personnel as functioning together like “clockwork.”

He returned to the communication issue. “They need something down there,” he said, referring to the Dukes County Communications Center. “They truly need something upgraded … It’s messed up.”

The Island’s emergency communications is an issue that was raised two months ago when a state official was visiting the Vineyard in November. Sheriff Robert Ogden says the system needs to be updated.

Mr. Malkin asked if communications issues related to the accident have been raised with the sheriff or communications center management. Executive secretary Tim Carroll, who is also  deputy fire chief, said a meeting with the sheriff was slated for next week.

“This is the first I’ve heard about any delay,” Police Chief Jonathan Klaren said.

“One of the things that happens,” Mr. Carroll said, “is that there’s a down-Island and an up-Island tower that transmits the emergency page, and it’s unclear which tower was used.

So some people did not receive the page. And so a second fallback position is something called “I Am Responding” — which goes out on their cell phones — and that was never activated by the comm center, or at least it apparently wasn’t. We’ll find out next week.”

“I heard, from the Chilmark Police Department point of view,” Mr. Doty said, “that [Officer] Jesse Burton was right there and [gave] immediate CPR, and was very hands-on and did a great job.”

“That’s correct,” Chief Klaren said. “He was right there. Hospital staff assured him as well as other responders that there wasn’t anything anybody could have done …”

He went on to say the response functioned in an orderly manner, and that neighboring police departments helped by blocking roadways.

“It all, in my opinion, worked pretty well,” he said and reiterated that he hadn’t been informed about communication glitches.

In other business, Mr. Malkin, the board’s harbor liaison, informed the board that an engineer for electrical work in Menemsha hasn’t yet been secured, and that time is of the essence if the work is to be complete by Memorial Day.