Vineyard Joins Cape Community in Compact to Offer Mutual Aid in
Disaster Conditions


Martha's Vineyard emergency rescue crews will no longer be
left to battle disasters alone.

A simple phone call from an Island fire chief mobilizes additional
manpower and equipment to the Island - thanks to a mutual aid
agreement finalized this spring among Vineyard fire departments and
emergency responders on Cape Cod.

"They know how vulnerable we are. They see the potential for a
disaster here. We buy [equipment] for the worst thing that could happen,
but it's never enough," said Edgartown fire chief Antone
Bettencourt, one of the Island chiefs to coordinate the agreement with
fire officials in Barnstable County.

The moment an Island fire chief realizes manpower is overwhelmed or
the disaster calls for more specialized equipment, he phones the Mashpee
fire department - the primary liaison for the mutual aid network.
One of the Cape chiefs rushes to the Coast Guard station in Woods Hole
to catch a ride to the Vineyard and assess the situation with Island
teams. If the Coast Guard's resources are maxed out, the state
police helicopter, the Coast Guard air station or the Falmouth harbor
master fills the gap.

The Cape fire chief then deploys his resources, calling on emergency
personnel from departments within Barnstable County to create a rapid
deployment team. Either the Steamship Authority or the Coast Guard then
shuttles the crew from Woods Hole - where they meet to gear up in
protective clothing at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's
Clark Lab.

"I asked how long it would take before we could get folks
here. They said that 20 EMTs [emergency medical technicians] could be
here in an hour or two, depending on how they come," Chief
Bettencourt said. Before this mutual aid agreement, an Island fire chief
might make a dozen phone calls to Cape departments in an emergency,
searching for a station with resources to spare.

The Island's isolation may very well be one of its assets, but
only rescue workers know in full the drawbacks of that isolation.
Disasters - from brush fires to hurricanes - seem to
multiply the seven miles of water separating the several hundred
firefighters and EMTs on the Vineyard from their comrades on the Cape.

"Of course, 9/11 made a big impact. New York city had
thousands to pull from, but we have a handful in comparison. We're
out here by ourselves, and decisions have to be made quickly,"
Chief Bettencourt said. "The Island has a lot of what the rest of
the world has, but only we worry about that."

Law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical teams
know all too well how vulnerable Martha's Vineyard can be.

"The Island attracts many prominent people, making it even
more likely that things will happen here," Chief Bettencourt said,
noting an anthrax scare in Edgartown following Sept. 11 that sent
hazardous waste specialists from the Cape to the town's aid.

But the mutual aid plan will also assist the Island with routine
incidents that seriously drain manpower.

"We are practically all volunteer. One hundred and fifty
firefighters could turn out for a brush fire and work for five or six
hours. That 150 will dwindle to 30 or 40 because people obviously have
to go to work. And a brush fire may take three or four tries before we
get it out completely," Chief Bettencourt said.

As part of the new network, Vineyard fire chiefs can also access one
of four state police air wings - choppers equipped to do anything
from battle fires to chase convicts across rugged terrain. The
helicopter can drop a load of water on the hot spots of a brush fire
while firefighters work their way around the fire's perimeter on

The mutual aid plan followed nearly a year and a half of logistical
planning, prompted by offers from rescue teams on the Cape. Nantucket is
also in the mutual aid loop.

"We hope we never need to use it, but we're certainly
glad to have them there and available," Chief Bettencourt said.

This safety net comes at no cost to the Vineyard. There's not
even the expectation that teams from the Vineyard would be on a rapid
deployment team for a disaster on the Cape.

"We really have nothing to bring over there that they
don't already have. This [mutual aid plan] is just to make us more
comfortable," he said.