John O’Donnell: ‘My way to give back to the community’

Oak Bluffs fire captain and night shift EMT.


Oak Bluffs Fire Capt. John O’Donnell, 34, spends many of his nights at the town’s fire station. In addition to the general time he gives as the volunteer captain of Rescue 561 and Engine 522, O’Donnell also volunteers as a night shift EMT. 

Oak Bluffs Fire and EMS Chief Nelson Wirtz said O’Donnell not only pulls scheduled EMT shifts but answers EMS calls on demand if EMS traffic rises above a certain threshold. For his scheduled EMT work on a 14-hour shift, Chief Wirtz said O’Donnell receives a $175 stipend. O’Donnell also does night shifts as a duty fire officer, where he does such things as answering fire alarm calls. Those shifts are 6 pm to 8 am Monday through Friday, bookended with 24-hour shifts on the first night, a Sunday, and the last night, a Saturday. 

Stints like that don’t come every week, but follow a six- to seven-person rotation. O’Donnell has been on the department for about 20 years, after joining as a junior firefighter when he was a teenager. He became a captain three years ago, following in the footsteps of his dad, Bruce, who was a captain and eventually an assistant chief. 

“It’s a great feeling to be part of a group like this,” O’Donnell said. “To be able to give back.”

The training is a commitment, but O’Donnell said it was worth the effort. “It’s a big dedication,” he said. “It does take time to do your training, to learn everything.”

Put to use on the Vineyard or elsewhere, O’Donnell said fire and emergency medical training remains a skill useful wherever you are. “It’s a nice feeling to be able to walk up and know what to do if somebody’s in need,” he said.

O’Donnell said the tolerance and understanding his wife and three kids afford him allows him to do the volunteer work he does for the Oak Bluffs Fire and EMS Department: “My family has been really great about it.”

He said that’s especially true of his wife, Shawna. “I’ve actually been with my wife since we were freshmen in high school here — she’s been incredible. I don’t know how she puts up with this sometimes.”

O’Donnell said his pager will go off at the dinner table, and “I’m up and running out the door.”

O’Donnell also tipped his hat to the town of Edgartown, where he works on the highway department. O’Donnell works with fellow fire officers there, including Allan DeBettenourt, who is the superintendent.

O’Donnell said the town has been very accommodating in allowing him, as well as colleagues, to leave for calls.

“John O’Donnell is an invaluable member of the Highway Department and a top-notch professional,” Edgartown town administrator James Hagerty emailed. “His service to both the towns of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs cannot be understated — and on a daily basis he gets the job done.” 

​​​O’Donnell described EMT work, depending on the season, as very “up and down” in intensity. 

“During the summertime, you could be out on calls all night long — back-to-back-to-back calls,” he said. “This time of year, you go three or four shifts without a single call.” 

O’Donnell may switch which first responder hat he’s wearing depending on the scene he arrives at and who is available. If there are extra EMTS on scene, and the situation requires it, he may put on the firefighter hat, even if he’s on shift as an EMT. He also said firefighters from different companies can find themselves employing skills not typically associated with the company they are assigned to. 

“It all depends on what you have for personnel around,” O’Donnell said. “If you have extra EMTs and not enough firefighters to help with the rescue side. We’re all pretty well trained in that department, fire side, to do everything. Just because you’re not assigned to the rescue truck doesn’t mean that you can’t come to motor vehicle accidents. So we have guys from the ladder truck and other engines that are coming that are just as well trained as the guys on the rescue truck. And then if there’s ever a bigger call where we need help, we have a great mutual aid system, where all we have to do is radio for another ambulance to respond from another town or fire personnel from another town. With the [communications] center, we have it set up so if there’s a fire or a larger-scale incident, they automatically have mutual aid being called to make sure we have the help there.”

And that’s what occurred March 3, when the Vineyard’s fire chiefs were at an conference off-Island. On that day, O’Donnell had been left in charge as the duty officer. A call came into the communications center of smoke at the Ocean View Restaurant. 

“I was right around the corner,” O’Donnell said. “I only live a couple houses up from the fire station, and instead of going straight there with the department pickup truck, I went and grabbed an engine.”

When he rolled in front of the Ocean View in that engine and began fire preparations, the hoses weren’t even unfurled before flames began pushing through the roof. “It was a huge shock to me,” O’Donnell said. 

O’Donnell took command of the fire scene, and as other members of his department and other departments rolled in, some of equal or higher rank than him, they all respected his command and worked under his direction. 

O’Donnell recalled when West Tisbury Deputy Fire Chief John Cotterill “asked what I needed, and he went right to work,” O’Donnell said. 

The respect went both ways. O’Donnell recalled that Chief Cotterill pointed out an adjacent house needed protection from the Ocean View heat and flames. Before long, West Tisbury firefighters were at work protecting the adjacent house. O’Donnell also tipped his hat to Edgartown Fire Capt. Kara Shemeth and Tisbury Fire Capt. Ken Maciel for their help on that fire. 

“Everybody worked well together,” O’Donnell said. 

Under O’Donnell, the Ocean View fire was kept contained, and snuffed by the afternoon. 

“He made excellent decisions,” Chief Wirtz said of O’Donnell’s leadership that day. 

O’Donnell is still in awe of having that fire vent itself right before his eyes. “I’ve never seen anything like that in almost 20 years of being on the department,” he said.

For a year of service as a fire captain, O’Donnell receives $3,800 from the town, Chief Wirtz said. Divided by all the calls, all the training and meetings, the Sunday truck and radio checks, Chief Wirtz said that works out to practically pennies an hour for doing the same things a fire captain would do in a full-time salaried position elsewhere. 

O’Donnell said it was worth the effort to balance volunteering and family. “To be able to be that person to help, or one of the people to be able to help people in need, that’s my biggest thing. All of us, we sign up to do it, and none of us — obviously we don’t do it for the money — it’s all volunteer work. My feeling is it’s my way to give back to the community.”


  1. Thank you for reminding us that some of the younger generation IS stepping up. John is our neighbor, he’s first a husband, father, son, brother and friend even before he starts his day working and volunteering! Proud to be from MV because of John and the others mentioned here.

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