Within the ranks of West Tisbury’s volunteer Fire Department, a rescue squad remains at the ready for the express purpose of extracting people from perilous environments. At any hour of the day, its members will respond to any situation where a person is trapped — in a plane fuselage, in a hole in ice, in a collapsed building, or, most commonly, in a wrecked vehicle.
Squad members leave work, family, their beds, in exchange for a stipend that may or may not cover what they burn in fuel to get to the station, an emergency scene, or to the regular drills and training necessary to keep their skills sharp. This volunteer rescue duty is on top of being on call to fight fires.
Rescue work can be dangerous. Just getting a driver out of a vehicle and into the hands of an ambulance crew pits the squad against safety features such as airbags that can act like booby traps following a crash. For an aging squad seeking new recruits, the commitment and fortitude required for the work can sometimes prove a tough sell. But young blood is trickling in, and longtimers continue to find the work rewarding and worth the time spent to do it well.
“To join the rescue, you’ve got to have strong nerves and kind of be cool in a bad situation,” West Tisbury Fire Chief Manuel Estrella III said. Estrella described the squad members as “great” like that.
The West Tisbury Fire Rescue Squad is led by Capt. Kenny Mastromonaco, a 61-year-old carpenter. Roundly described as mellow by his squad, he’s equally described by those firefighters in terms of the seriousness he applies to drills.
“Unfortunately these things happen,” Mastromonaco said of rescue situations. “You know that’s the sad part. Why do you have a rescue truck? Why do you have all this stuff? You know it’s not like we want these things to happen, but they’re going to happen. You want to be prepared.”
Though they have a dive team and an ice rescue team, calls for motor vehicle incidents are what the rescue squad is most commonly called for, he said.
“Our bread and butter is getting the door open, getting someone out of a car, and getting them into the ambulance,” he said. Due to the pandemic, he described that prime objective as “a little harder, because we can’t get as close as we used to.”
Mastromonaco has his squad take apart a car or truck about every month to practice safe methods of entry and extraction, using hydraulic devices and cutting tools. These drills also help firefighters identify where batteries are in vehicles, so they can be disconnected. Battery disconnection is a key step at any accident scene, Lt. Louis De Geofroy said. De Geofroy, a 63-year-old home inspector and West Tisbury’s facilities manager, said that left connected, batteries can spark fires and trigger airbags.
“You can’t be in between a patient and an airbag when it goes off, because you’re both going to get injured,” he said. “They’re not designed to have something between them and the occupant.”
Generally speaking, firefighter Mike Hull said, the rescue squad needs to apply care and precision in what they cut and don’t cut to ensure airbags don’t deploy at all. Hull, who is 75, and among the longest-serving members of the squad, is both a private carpenter and town carpenter for West Tisbury. He said vehicle doors used to be assembled with something called a Nader pin that made it easier to pop a door open for rescue, but no more. “We cut the hinges now more often than spreading and popping the door open from the latch side,” Hull said.
“In the old days, we used to do a lot more prying,” Mastromonaco said. “Now we have to do a lot more cutting, because there’s nothing to pry against because these vehicles are just aluminium on nothing.”
Peril can be found unexpectedly all over crashed vehicles, De Geofroy pointed out. “We need to know the various safety features,” he said. “On a modern convertible, there’s a strut that pops if the system senses the car rolling over. You have to know where that is, because if it goes off and you’re leaning over it, it’s going to go through you.”
Mastromonaco made it clear that despite his rank and the dangers associated with rescue work, he doesn’t put his own safety above his squad’s: “I would never ask anyone to do anything that I myself would not do.”
At times, part of the volunteer job involves aiding those who are gravely injured, and also encountering fatalities. That reality hasn’t been lost on Maddy Scott, a professional gardener, who at 24 is the youngest member of the squad.
“When I first started going to the drills on the rescue team, I don’t remember who told me this, but someone told me that you need to consider that while you’re on your way that this could be the most traumatic thing you’ve ever seen,” she said. “You never know what it’s going to be.”
“You develop a standoff perspective — unless you really know the people that have been involved, and they’re really badly hurt,” Hull said. “In my case, my function is basically to get the truck there and help set up. Somebody has to stay with the truck. And I drive it, so the driver stays with the truck. A lot of times I’ll get to an accident scene and never see the patients.”
“There’s a lot of people who don’t want to see what you see on the rescue squad,” Lt. Brynn Schaffner said. “Especially being on a small Island like this. At some point you’re going to see someone that you know in a car accident …”
Schaffner, who is 40, works for Cronig’s Market in operations. He said he considered himself fortunate to have a boss (Steve Bernier) who pays him even when he’s answering a call. Most squad members are self-employed, he noted, and don’t have that luxury.
“It’s a lot of work, and it’s really a commitment by the whole family — getting called out in the middle of the night, middle of supper, or on a holiday, you know, you’ve got to go,” Capt. Eric Medeiros said. Medeiros, 55, sells and repairs appliances. He’s the longest-serving member on the squad. He joined at 15½, under Chief Arnie Fisher Sr., West Tisbury’s first fire chief.
He said it’s not necessarily the lateness of a given call that poses a problem. “You wake right up quick,” he said, “but it gets a little harder to get to work the next day.”
“It’s a second job, no matter how you look at it,” Deputy Fire Chief Greg Pachico said. “I can’t thank them enough for the time they put in.”
Mastromonaco said some calls can put him in a real pickle if he’s got somebody’s roof off, but he generally manages to throw a tarp up before he rushes away.
Mike Fontes, a 71-year-old local landlord, said the money given to squad members doesn’t elevate it to paid work.
“We get a biannual — you could call it a stipend,” he said. “I don’t know, It doesn’t amount to very much. We kind of joke that it reimburses us for our gas and our tires because very often, especially with road accidents, we’re going in our own vehicles. We have our red lights. And I have a little sound box in my truck. Because most people don’t look in their rearview mirrors. You know you can be right on top of them with your red lights, trying to get to a scene, and they’re completely oblivious. Especially here, they’re on vacation. Their minds are in another place.”
West Tisbury’s rescue squad makes it a point to linger until wrecks are taken away. The squad also tidies up the scene.
“Every town is different,” Medeiros said, “but we usually hang around and clean up the mess, and like to wait until the tow truck safety gets the car loaded and off the scene, just in case something bad happens.”
That’s what the squad did Christmas Eve, when a Subaru and a Volvo collided at the intersection of Scotchman’s Bridge Lane, State Road, and Panhandle Road. Due to an accident earlier in the month, the rescue truck was out for repairs, so the squad members rigged their dive truck as an interim response vehicle, and arrived at the scene with it. Luckily both motorists were unscathed and didn’t require extraction. Squad members still disconnected batteries and cleaned the scene, according to Pachico.
Other times, folks are not lucky, and are trapped and hurt, and their vehicle must be partially dismantled to reach them. If car rescues weren’t enough, some rescue squad members are on specialized teams for ice rescue and water rescue. With some regularity, the squad also finds itself rescuing horses from pools, and addressing other predicaments barnyard animals can get into. Whatever they find themselves doing, rescue-wise, all members of the squad begin on fire tankers as part of their basic learning at the department. Scott was no exception. After about two years, Scott added the rescue squad to her duties, and said she quickly found the squad to be ”helpful and inclusive.”
“They’re so dedicated,” she said. “I consider myself very lucky to be on the rescue team with them.”
De Geofroy said he’d love to see some new recruits, but he gets why it can be a slow sell. “These days people are working three, four jobs trying to stay ahead of the mortgage out here,” he said. He speculated the up-Island towns like West Tisbury may have to resort to mixing the volunteers with full-time, paid firefighters in order to maintain service.
Nevertheless, folks continue to join.
Medeiros, whose father served in West Tisbury, has another member of the family in the department now, his 20-year-old daughter Evelyn, who drills and serves in a probationary manner with the rescue squad when home from college. She also serves on a tanker.
Despite the dangers and commitment, Mastromonaco summed up the reward rescue work offers.
“The beautiful part is when you actually save people,” he said. “There’s nothing like that feeling.”
How to volunteer
Those interested in joining the West Tisbury Fire Department, and perhaps ultimately the rescue squad, can receive an application from Chief Estrella by calling him at 508-693-9555. Also, so long as they are properly masked, people can drop by Fire Station 1 on Edgartown–West Tisbury Road or Fire Station 2 on State Road on Sundays during radio check between 10 and 11 am, and learn more from any firefighter.