West Tisbury chief douses Tri-Town Fire Dept. spark

Chiefs weren’t part of the discussion.

West Tisbury fire engine 721 outside Fire Station 2. Fire Chief Manuel Estrella III has come out against merging the up-Island fire departments. — Courtesy West Tisbury Fire Dept.

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West Tisbury Fire Chief Manuel Estrella III told The Times Wednesday he does not support the formation of a Tri-Town Fire Department. Chief Estrella said he disapproved of Chilmark officials opting to propose a unified department without first consulting Chilmark Chief David Norton or himself. “They went behind David’s back, and that was wrong,” Chief Estrella said.

Chilmark officials opted to discuss the regional fire department idea while Chief Norton was out of the country, Chief Estrella said.

As The Times reported on Jan. 24, Captain Robert Coutinho represented the Chilmark Fire Department at the selectmen’s meeting, where the issue of combining Chilmark, Aquinnah, and West Tisbury fire departments was first publicly raised.

Chilmark selectman Jim Malkin confirmed that Chief Norton was on vacation when he raised the issue. However, he said he broached the idea spontaneously because he felt it related to the conversation underway about the new fire station. Malkin said Chilmark inquired about studying the idea, not implementing it.

Chief Estrella said he spoke with Chief Norton about what transpired in his absence shortly after he returned from his trip. “We were both upset, especially him,” Chief Estrella said.

To put it in perspective, Chief Estrella said, he found it unlikely that Chilmark officials would have put forth a police department merger without consulting Chief Jonathan Klaren, so why would they not give Chief Norton the courtesy of consultation prior to raising a fire department merger? Chief Estrella also said the dearth of volunteers Chilmark officials referenced is common knowledge. “Every town is shorthanded,” he said. “There’s no question about that.”

However, without elaborating, he said he didn’t think a Tri-Town Fire Department was the way forward for West Tisbury, and emphasized that he was sharing his opinion, not the position of the town.

Chief Norton told The Times the situation was a “stabbing in the back,” adding, “This has happened more than once,” that there have been other times selectmen have kept him out of the loop on fire department matters. The up-Island towns enjoy strong mutual aid already, he said, but Chilmark’s fire station is in atrocious condition, he said, and that’s the priority.

“There’s asbestos dust when you come in every morning,” he said.