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 foot.

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.