Last call: A consideration for career fire departments

Some Island fire chiefs say they are struggling to maintain their ranks of volunteer firefighters.


Updated, March 29

The tradition of maintaining volunteer fire departments on Martha’s Vineyard, which has been passed down by generations of Islanders, is becoming harder to maintain, to a point that at least one department is considering hiring more than a dozen career firefighters.

Island chiefs say that the increased training requirements, combined with a cultural shift and a changing population, are all helping to shrink the pool of potential volunteers they draw from to fill out their ranks.

Meantime, chiefs in some towns say that they are seeing higher call numbers with larger populations, straining their departments to meet the demands even more.

Oak Bluffs Fire Chief Nelson Wirtz — who says they recently had their busiest summer on record in call volume — tells The Times that the department is exploring a staffing model that would require hiring 16 full-time firefighters. 

The model would ensure that four career firefighters would be on call 24/7. Under the model, the department would still maintain a volunteer system, but they would rely heavily on the career staff.

The plan is still in the preliminary stages, and while it would be a significant increase to the department’s operating budget, it could be put into practice in the coming years. 

In Edgartown, Chief Alexander Schaeffer says that they have every intention of maintaining a volunteer department as best they can; it’s a service he’s proud of having been a part of since he was a teenager.

“The longstanding tradition — we will go down fighting to keep it a call fire department, but I’m not sure how long that will be,” Schaeffer told The Times in a recent interview. 

“There’s no one in our department that wants to see us move this way. We have volunteers that are really invested, through morality and professional development,” the chief added. “But if no one can afford to live in Edgartown that can volunteer, we have to look at it differently.”

For firefighters whose fathers, mothers, and even grandparents served as volunteers, it’s difficult to watch as their departments consider moving away from the longstanding model.

For Oak Bluffs Fire Captain Nelson Dickson — whose grandfather served nearly six decades in the Oak Bluffs department, more than half of that time as the chief, and whose name, Chief Nelson Amaral, adorns the outside of the town’s fire department — he is sad to see the department struggling more and more to retain volunteers. 

Dickson has fond memories of taking rides with his father on fire engines as a kid, hearing stories about fighting fires from the older firefighters, and getting taken under wings as a teenager after joining the department as a junior in high school. The volunteer service is a brotherhood, Dickson said, and it’s difficult to see the shift to a career department.

Dickson was originally a staunch opponent of the idea, but he is starting to see a career department as inevitable: ”It is something we do see the writing on the wall.”

“We volunteer to keep our community safe, and our neighbors’ houses safe,” he said. “If it takes having a combination staff or partially full-time staff, we would be remiss not to agree with it.”

What’s leading the change

The term volunteer is a bit of a misnomer. Firefighters are paid for their service, but are not on salary. In Oak Bluffs, for example, firefighters are paid a stipend which requires firefighters to train for a certain amount of hours and to respond to a certain number of calls. 

Island fire departments rely on a pool of volunteers — also known as call firefighters — when responding to any kind of emergency, whether a traffic accident or house fire. Because not every volunteer will respond to every call, departments need to maintain a large pool to be able to draw enough firefighters when it’s required.

Chief Wirtz said that the Oak Bluffs department has about 40 volunteers that they rely on, but many are not available on a given day or week. While Chief Wirtz said that his department has been able to meet the demand — through what he calls exceptional work from a core group of volunteers — he is pushing for a career department with his numbers getting lower. 

Across the board, there are several reasons why the pool of candidates is shrinking for fire chiefs, and local chiefs say it isn’t just the Island that is struggling. They point to a national trend. Departments on the Cape, like Falmouth for example, have made the switch away from a call department.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, much of the country is still volunteer-run. Seventy percent are volunteer departments, and just below 10 percent are fully career departments, with the rest a mix of the two.

In Massachusetts, though, departments are mostly career. Thirty-two percent are fully volunteer, while just 24 percent are mostly volunteer, with the remaining a combination of both.

Chiefs point to an increase in training requirements as a reason for the shift. Firefighters need to be qualified in a variety of areas, including hazardous materials, hydraulics, emergency medical care, chemistry, fire tactics, and a slew of other specialties.

But while training demands have increased over the years, many see a cultural shift and a change of population on the Island as an added local challenge. Time constraints from family and jobs tie up potential candidates, and the pride in volunteering is no longer what it used to be.

“It was something that you just did,” Cpt. Dickson said. “It was a generational thing: ‘My father is in the fire department, I’m going to go into the fire department.’ We’re not seeing that turnover anymore.”

When Dickson joined the department as a junior out of high school, he said that there were a handful of other high school students who joined him in the Oak Bluffs department; other students joined other departments as well. He doesn’t see the younger generation getting involved the way they used to.

Time constraints

There is also competition for time with work and family life. For Dickson, he says he works for a company that understands the need to serve in the department.

Christina Colarusso, a lieutenant in the Chilmark Fire Department and Tisbury select board member, sees the ranks of volunteer departments having difficulty as well. She points to a changing population on the Island, with more second-home owners. 

“I think the loss of the middle class is really detrimental to the fabric of our community,” Colarusso said. “The loss of the middle class is hurting everything, and it definitely seems to be hurting the fire departments.”

For her personally, she has had to cut down the time she’s able to provide as a firefighter because of her work as a select board member, volunteering elsewhere, and work. She said that she sometimes has to choose between going to church and doing her Sunday duties with the department. 

For volunteers, there are meetings and training drills that can take several hours every month. A bare minimum for Colarusso is eight hours a month on Sundays; there are other commitments throughout the week as well, including more drills, maintenance work, inspections; some departments require firefighters to be on call for administrative tasks.

And then there are the actual emergencies, which can take someone out of work for hours. For many full-time workers, taking that time out of work isn’t possible.

“It is hard to balance when people are barely surviving to be able to give back to the community,” Colarusso said.

There’s also the issue of housing. Chief Schaeffer said that he has seen the impact of the lack of housing on his volunteer department. The department and volunteers put in a lot of time and resources training, and then losing an individual who can’t find a place to live is frustrating.

“The demographics of the Island have changed,” Chief Scaefer said. “We used to be a community of neighborhoods, and a driving force [for volunteers] was a desire to be there for your neighbor. But as people from the outside come without that want, that pool diminishes.”

Schaeffer says that the department is a call department, but it has started relying on a tiered system, with some volunteers paid to be on call for a given time. That provides the department with a more reliable response.

“I haven’t pitched the idea [of a professional department], but right now we are trying everything we can to keep the status quo, to keep morale up,” the Edgartown chief said.

Looking to the future, the department is in the early stages of designing a new fire station. Schaeffer says that he is thinking of what the department could look like years down the line, and said that they are considering building barracks that would allow them to rely on staff that may be commuting to the Island.

Back in Oak Bluffs, Chief Wirtz said that the idea to move to a career department is not because of a lack of professionalism from his volunteers. Quite the opposite. He says that before he came on board as chief from the Chatham department, there was a void in leadership in Oak Bluffs. The former chief had resigned amid a number of issues. But Wirtz says that the professionalism of the volunteers was what kept the department together. And he says that maintaining a pool of volunteers will be necessary to supplement a career department as they transition — which would take years.

Wirtz says he’s grateful for their contributions, saying that the minimal amount of money they get and the hours they put in is a testament to commitment to Oak Bluffs.

“These guys give their heart and soul to this department,” Wirtz said. “There just aren’t enough of them.”

This post was updated to reflect that Chief Wirtz was previously employed in Chatham.


  1. I have been a vocal proponent of merging, not just fire departments, but police departments, and all the other duplication we have on this island. The taxpayer is being over burdened with unnecessary duplication. A regional Fire Department is ultimately the way to proceed to save taxpayer money. The issue is no police chief Fire Chief wants to give up their little kingdom for the sake of the taxpayer overall. And for the efficiency of operation and saving our valuable resources. This island that wants to be environmentally friendly seems to not care about all the duplication that’s required in these multiple departments.

    • Should the County have just one Fire Department?
      How about the Cape and Islands?
      How should it funded?
      Will preference be given to locals?

    • It has zero to do with police or fire chief’s. They have zero authority in making those decisions. It comes down to town leaders not wanting to give up their power and control over a chief/agency.

      • If the chief’s pushed for this it would happen as the town leaders do not lead anymore they just follow the noise. If they actually lead we would see more change on different levels. The island is blessed with seasonal tax payers which allows us to be wasteful with tax dollars.

        • The island is blessed with seasonal tax payers which allows us real Islanders to have lower taxes.

  2. The island would benefit so much if they went to a Regionalized their Fire/EMS system. MV Fire/EMS with districts and have something similar to one overall chief and then 4 District Chiefs. Rotate all personnel between all the departments on a weekly or monthly schedule so that way people don’t get “burnt out” working busier departments and slower departments. This would help sharpen the skills of all those involved in the departments. Each district would still do their own monthly drills then quarterly they’d have an all island drill.

    This is something that’s been brought up on the past but peoples egos are too large to truly put what’s for the greater good of the island ahead of their ego and selfish pride

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