When he started at the Chilmark Fire Department, it was a simpler time. The volunteer roster at the station was robust, and the town was less posh. It was 1997, and he and his wife Annie got a break to move there from the late Herb Hancock, a longtime selectmen.
“The only reason I could volunteer is because of Herb Hancock. [We] rented one of his places down on Quansoo for $1,100 a month, year-round, four-bedroom,” he said. “A bedroom on the Island right now is like $800 a month. A bedroom.”
“Herbert was a one-man housing department,” Chilmark Deputy Fire Chief Tim Carroll said.
Unfortunately, when he later wanted to buy that home, an unfavorable decision by the planning board scuttled the deal. The Bradshaws now make their home in West Tisbury on the Chilmark line.
“Our biggest problem in Chilmark is no one really lives in Chilmark anymore,” he said. “Three of our [fire] officers live in West Tisbury.”
Bradshaw said his good friend Taylor “the Sailor” Wilson introduced him to the fire department. And training he received in the Navy made immersion in the department pretty smooth.
“We’ve got to thank Taylor for bringing him aboard,” Chilmark Fire Chief David Norton said.
“It was different back then,” Bradshaw said. “There was a lot more civic duty. We had a lot more volunteers. The costs have gotten out of control. Like I said, I was renting a place for $1,100. That’s how we built our business. That’s how we could raise our kids in town. But now when they say affordable rentals, they’re talking like $3,000 a month. That’s not an affordable rental.”
Bradshaw runs Martha’s Vineyard Tile in Vineyard Haven with his wife, Annie. Whether at the shop on Beach Road, or on a job site elsewhere on the Vineyard, he hastens up-Island whenever his pager alerts for Chilmark, and from time to time when it alerts for other departments and mutual aid is needed. He does this for little more than a modest annual gasoline stipend.
The latest big fire he fought was the Sept. 12 Middle Road blaze at a house under construction. He answered the call at 3:30 am and remained on scene until 6 pm that day. Since the Bass and Bluefish Derby was underway then, he said, his wife thought he’d disappeared from the house for another reason: “She told everybody, that son of a gun is fishing. I know he is.”
The largest structure fire he ever helped fight for the department was the 2010 blaze that consumed the Coast Guard’s Menemsha boathouse and burned several boats.
“We do have a lot of small fires, like truck fires, grill fires,” he said. But most of what he winds up responding to is on the road. “We don’t get that many structure fires. We get a lot of accidents. A lot of cars. A lot of motorcycles.”
As president of the Chilmark Firefighter’s Association, Bradshaw launches the annual Backyard Bash and firefighter Halloween and Christmas parties. He also administers the scholarship fund, along with Annie, who is association secretary. What preoccupies him most in that role is finding new recruits for what he says is a shrunken roster. On top of low recruitment, the chief is slated to retire in August 2019. He said he’s hoping to work a deal with the town to beef up the chief’s compensation going forward, so the position will be more attractive to potential candidates. He’s also hoping to secure some affordable rentals for firefighters, so younger recruits can plant roots: “We have some really good people. We need more.”
A serious obstacle to recruitment is the training commitment, he said. “When I first volunteered, it wasn’t as extreme. Now with Massachusetts’ new laws you literally have to have the same training as a full-time firefighter, but you’re a volunteer.”
Bradshaw recalls he used to see all training done on-Island. Now it’s only partially so — half on, half off. “It makes it hard,” he said. “It’s a big commitment. It’s a lot of hours — stuff like that. And a lot of people can’t because they’re working. They can’t survive. And thank God a lot of the employers on the Island are good about letting their employees go out for fires … or it wouldn’t work.”
As older Chilmark firefighters age out, Bradshaw sees the current scheme becoming unsustainable. “If things don’t change, we’ll probably have to go to full-time departments,” he said. “At least partial full-time departments, and have volunteers on call.”
Bradshaw’s practical skills and experience serve the department well, Carroll said. “We rely upon Jeremy as one of the most dedicated members of our department. He’s not one of those who shows up to say why it can’t be done. He’s there to make it happen.”
“He’s a good, kindhearted soul,” Chief Norton said. “Would bend over backwards to help anybody. He helped me out when I was laid up in the hospital.” Of his volunteer work at the department, Chief Norton described him as an indispensable pillar, and said if anything, “he probably does too much.”
In letters, donations, and verbal gratitude, Bradshaw said, he gets rewarding feedback from the community: “I’ve had so many people come up to me — ‘Oh, thank you so much.’”
Tough and time-consuming as it is, Bradshaw said, he remains loyal to the department and the town. “I’ve always loved Chilmark,” he said.