Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer presented a strategic plan for the department to the Edgartown select board during a Friday afternoon meeting. The strategic plan evaluated the department, and anticipated future needs and what resources will likely be needed to meet those needs.
Schaeffer said high-level fire officer training through Massachusetts Firefighting Academy and the structure from the book “Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence” by Mark Wallace were used to develop the plan. The information presented was attained through a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis, conducted by Lt. Thomas Ignacio.
“I’ve come across a few times I’ve felt the finance committee were kind of caught off-guard by some of our requests and things, and that was due to a lack of communication and us not being forthcoming with this much information as we probably could have,” Schaeffer said. “We saw an opportunity there to try and create this plan that would be able to relay that information a little more formally, and give an opportunity for great dialogue between all of the boards, the select board, and our membership as well.”
Schaeffer said the intention is to provide the service they already do as a community-based fire department for as long as possible. “I believe everybody likes to have your neighbor show up to help you out, or people you know,” he said.
The 30-page plan had six sections to it: acknowledgments, forward, mission/vision/values, background and community profile, operational analysis, and strategic planning. Schaeffer said the plan was written so people just entering the community could get a handle on what the department does.
For the sake of time, only two parts from the strategic planning section were presented. Schaeffer said this was because good dialogue among Edgartown’s select board, finance committee, and personnel committee on this topic will hopefully help the department’s “mission goals for the next five years or so.”
The first topic looked at was the department’s facilities. The fire station was originally built in 1966. The ambulance bay was added in the 1980s, and the kitchen and day room were added in 2005.
“As our service needs have changed over the years, we’ve adapted different portions of the station, and we’ve really come to the end of our ability to do that,” Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer said a feasibility study was conducted in 2019 to see what can be done to improve the fire station, which found numerous deficiencies, such as a lack of apparatus bays to “meet the needs of the current or future equipment,” or a lack of compliance to government standards. He showed the board an architect’s rendering of a station based on their needs assessment, which expands the size of the building. The concept design is estimated to cost $11.9 million. In comparison, the Dennis Fire Department’s station was awarded $14 million for renovations, reflecting the high building costs on the Cape and Islands. Schaeffer said he was not “married to this particular design,” and wanted to make sure input was taken into consideration before an actual plan was created.
Schaeffer said the next steps would be to present the study to Edgartown’s administration and finance committee to convince them of the department’s needs. Additionally, making a building committee to keep track of the scope and regulations of the project would be prudent.
Edgartown select board member Arthur Smadbeck said the way to move this forward would be for Schaeffer to figure out who might be good additions to the building committee. Edgartown town administrator James Hagerty suggested Schaeffer come back with a potential list next month.
The other topic presented was staffing and structure. For years, the Edgartown fire department was considered a volunteer department. “We’ve done a heavy recruitment campaign recently because we saw a decline in membership, mostly due to housing,” Schaeffer said.
The department’s main member retainment strategy has been through stipends. However, the SWOT analysis found that members’ desires to serve the community were hindered by the need to make a living on Martha’s Vineyard. Schaeffer said financial compensation commensurate with lost earnings was needed for the department to provide a reliable service to the community.
“The time we spend with training and actually doing the things that are required of us, it ends up being like a second job for a lot of us,” Edgartown volunteer firefighter Kara Shemath said.
A 2017 study by the Fire Chiefs of Massachusetts Call/Volunteer committee analyzed the pay of call, volunteer, and part-time firefighters across the state. It found that most of these firefighters were in Western Massachusetts, which has much lower living costs than Edgartown. Schaeffer hopes to find funding to gradually increase stipends, particularly for higher-level officers and volunteers. For example, the annual stipend of a senior captain is $2,540, and a quartermaster is none, which would gradually increase to $7,000 and $1,500, respectively, by fiscal year 2026.
Schaeffer wants to work together with the town to improve these stipends and avoid burnout among firefighters. Schaeffer said transitioning toward higher stipends will allow a smoother transition if the department needs to rely more on paid staff.
Additionally, Schaeffer said the department needs an assistant chief officer. This would bring in a full-time staff member to conduct managerial and administrative tasks, a necessity as the department becomes more professionalized and the fire prevention branch of the department receives more calls. Ideally, someone from within the department would be promoted to the position. Oak Bluffs and Tisbury’s fire departments both have assistant chiefs.
Similar to the facilities part, a committee would be needed to search for the right assistant chief and figure out the organizational and financial restructuring.
“Everyone wants to do what they can within the realms of reality,” Ignacio said. “This dedication came through, from the first-year member to the 20-year veteran.”
Edgartown select board chair Michael Donaroma said Schaeffer should work with Hagerty to figure out the next steps.