After more than a year of discussion, Oak Bluffs is poised to modernize its fire department by creating a new command structure and merging fire and ambulance personnel into one department.
The move follows the June release of an external report on the functioning of the department, which identified several areas in need of improvement.
The study was commissioned in the fall of 2013, when former fire chief Peter Forend said he wasn’t sure if he would seek reappointment.
Roy E. Jones 3rd, a retired Brewster fire chief, conducted interviews of 15 affiliates of the fire department, reviewed records and met with selectmen and the town administrator. The report was requested by the selectmen for the purpose of modernizing the department and identifying areas for improvement.
At the time, the selectmen also were figuring out what to do about a proposal from Mr. Forend to add $20,000 to the fire department budget to be applied to his salary. Historically, fire chiefs in the town have received modest monthly stipends, and are expected to manage the department’s budget and attend to administrative concerns. Mr. Forend was paid a stipend of $1,000 a month.
Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour suggested the board hire a consultant to analyze the inner workings of the department, in part to determine the value of investing in a full-time fire chief.
In late October, Mr. Jones traveled to the Island to discuss his recommendations with the selectmen.
He said his primary recommendation was to combine the fire and ambulance services departments, which have historically shared space and personnel but not the same leadership or budget. John Rose, a veteran of both departments, was asked to become interim chief of fire and ambulance services for the town. Across Barnstable County, as many as 18 fire districts have joint EMS and fire leadership.
The department has already begun to put some of Mr. Jones’s recommendations into practice.
“I think we felt there has been a lot of progress to straighten out the department,” Selectman Walter Vail told the Gazette.
But work is still needed to further professionalize the ranks.
Mr. Rose, who took over as acting chief in May, has proposed a new command structure that includes two second-ranked fire officials — a deputy chief and an assistant chief. Those positions are currently awaiting applicants. Mr. Rose also wants to create an ambulance captain position to lead the EMS portion of the department.
Selectmen have yet to promote Mr. Rose to an official full-time position. In the coming months, they will decide whether to open the position to off-Island candidates. Mr. Rose’s current salary is drawn from the ambulance budget, and he is not awarded a stipend for his fire department leadership.
Additionally, Mr. Jones said he found record-keeping to be inconsistent. He recommended that the department conduct reviews following each fire incident. These administrative tasks have been poorly attended to because the chief’s position has been part-time in the past, the consultant said.
The report described the morale of fire staff as strong, but noted particular alliances between members of the same company. To address the issue, Mr. Jones recommended that shared training be used to foster department-wide loyalty. Additionally, he said, staff described feeling unappreciated by selectmen.
“People were looking for you as a board of selectmen to show greater support to the fire department,” Mr. Jones said to the board.
Mr. Vail said he was not surprised by these concerns, but said he and the other selectmen have taken steps to rectify the situation. “I want them to know I am right there behind them giving them as much support as they need,” he said.
Late in the summer, the selectmen made good on their promise to better support the department, raising the pay of the deputy chief from $2,500 to $8,000, and increasing the pay of the assistant chief position from $2,500 to $6,000. Regular call firefighters will be paid $1,200 a month, compared to $800 previously. Mr. Rose said the new stipends are more competitive with other towns.
The decision to create a full-time fire/EMS chief position could be made in December or January, Mr. Vail said. He said he doesn’t think the town would be able to attract an off-Island candidate if the position was not full-time.
Overall, Mr. Vail said the board is satisfied with Mr. Rose’s performance.
“Everything we are hearing is that he is doing a fine job,” he said. “I am pleased to see him sink his teeth into this.”
At the October meeting, Mr. Jones told the selectman that bringing the department up to standard is particularly important for the town, which has the greatest fire load of any other on the Island. Downtown buildings stand unusually close together, and the distance between the densest commercial district surrounding Circuit avenue and the Camp Ground is minimal, making firefighting difficult, Mr. Rose said. “Oak Bluffs has the greatest risks of anyone on the Island,” Mr. Jones said. The Ritz and Giordano’s Restaurant are separated by a mere six inches, Mr. Rose said.
But Selectman Gail Barmakian wondered how much additional training the town could demand of volunteers. “I don’t know how much more pressure this would put on them,” she said.
Enlisting firemen are told they can expect as many as 200 hours of training, as well as additional time to attend drills and company meetings. “When you add in every bit of training, it comes out to about 300 hours,” Mr. Rose said. He said the volunteers are willing to dedicate the required time as long as sufficient advance notice is given. Skill requirements, issued by the department of fire services and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), are ever-evolving, Mr. Rose said. But while expectations increase, no additional compensation is made available.
“Your people are so dedicated,” Mr. Jones said. “Yes, they are technically volunteers, but the fire doesn’t care if you are getting paid.”
There are currently 20 on-call firefighters, 10 full-time ambulance employees and 20 volunteer EMTs.
Mr. Rose said he would like to expand the department, strengthening the ranks to as many as 60 on-call firefighters. Many of the current EMS employees also work as firefighters. Last year, the department received a total of 320 calls, with the most demand July through October.
Mr. Jones said paying some firefighters on a full-time basis may be necessary at some point, in the interest of aligning the department with the risk analysis of the town. “If bringing the town to a level of training and experience that is required today means that some people drop off, it could mean career people at least to some level,” he said.
Modernization of the department will continue with the construction of a brand new 21,000-square-foot fire and emergency services station in the next three years. The current facility lacks a proper decontamination area, storage area for equipment, and a meeting area that can accommodate the entire staff.
“Just the fact that we can have a building that we are proud of . . . that alone will help with morale,” Mr. Rose said, who added he’s grateful for the public support of the project. He said the builders of the current facility could never have imagined how much the demand has grown for public services. “Nobody would have thought in their wildest dreams that we would have four ambulances and all of the responsibilities that we have.”
“We appreciate the continued support of the townspeople of Oak Bluffs,” he said.