Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.
Oct. 30—OAK BLUFFS—Two years after merging the town’s fire and emergency departments, town officials have agreed to break them up again in an effort to ensure better response to calls.
The Oaks Bluffs Board of Selectmen, with support of the fire chief and town personnel board, voted unanimously Tuesday to divide the departments.
The two departments merged in July 2015, making the full-time paramedics and emergency medical technicians also firefighters. Before the merger the department had two branches, one for the fire department and one for emergency medical services. The goal of the merger was to make sure medical staff could respond to fire calls, giving the about 35 active call firefighters a break during the day, when many of them are at their jobs, Oak Bluffs Fire Chief John Rose said.
“During the day we have a lot of non-emergency calls,” Rose said. By making the full-time paramedics also firefighters, the call firefighters wouldn’t have to leave their jobs to respond to what often turns out to be something like a faulty fire alarm, Rose said.
But that never really panned out, according to Rose, and because of the workload and demands of off-island transports handled by the full-time staff, call firefighters were still regularly called in after the merger.
“The EMS service is so busy,” he said. “The EMTs and paramedics are just not available to meet the (fire) calls.”
The split sent reverberations through the department, where some members see the separation as retaliation for their unionization earlier this summer.
The union has about a dozen labor complaints lodged against the chief, said Oak Bluffs Fire Lt. Michael Desrosiers, who is also the treasurer of the firefighter’s union.
The selectmen unanimously voted to go forward with the breakup, which was also supported by Roy Jones, the former Brewster Fire Chief and frequent consultant to the town on fire and EMS matters. Jones had previously written a report in 2013 supporting the merger, but recently flipped sides on the issue.
In a report dated Oct. 3, 2017, Jones touched on ongoing riffs between call and full-time staff, as well as a divide between on- and off-island staff.
“As the department worked toward combining the employee structure changed,” Jones wrote. “A large number of employees are from off-island and do not have a fire interest. Chief Rose in his presentation to the Personnel Board points out a negative relationship and environment between the two branches exists and is hurting the volunteer fire department.”
The EMS side of the department slowly grew over the years, building up from on-call volunteers to full-time town employees, Selectman Greg Coogan said.
The merger didn’t work out as the town had wanted, Coogan said, and they are in negotiations with the firefighter’s union.
“We’re trying to do what’s best for the department,” Coogan said.
Oak Bluffs is the only department on the island that conducts transports from Martha’s Vineyard Hospital to Boston hospitals, making Oak Bluffs ambulances a regular sight in Falmouth. One transport off-island can routinely take seven hours of a paramedic’s shift. That leaves the paramedics on those transports unable to respond to anything that happens in Oak Bluffs, requiring on-call firefighters to be called in to help.
The department also has several members who commute from off-island, which leaves them unavailable to come in on a moment’s notice.
A letter from the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts to the board before their vote gave a stern condemnation of the move.
“The choice today facing the board is whether its allegiance is to the residents and taxpayers of the Town of Oak Bluffs, or to a Fire Chief who has instigated a war on ordinary rank-and-file firefighters who merely exercised rights to form a union,” the letter read.
The letter called Jones’s consultation into question, saying it was “only two pages long and “riddled with typographical errors and without any factual support.”
“…The Chief instigated the recommendation to separate the department. The Chief basically hired a friend to conduct the survey,” it read.
Robert McCarthy, who is representing the union, also questioned the report, as well as the selectmen’s decision.
“It’s totally and completely union retaliation,” he said. On the Jones report, McCarthy said, “he just did what the chief told him to do.”
Rose disputed the retaliation claims.
“It’s just not the case,” he said, adding that he’s looking forward to working with the union.
The dust is still settling on the divorce, but everything will remain status quo until negations with the union are finalized, Rose said. Although it is not clear how the transition will pan out, it will be similar to what the department was like before the merger, he said.
“It’s how we did it for at least 20 years leading up to this point,” he said. “We are doing our best to work through the transition.”
Even before the split, there were tensions in the department, said Desrosiers, who started just after the merger.
The union has several complaint against the town lodged with the state Department of Labor Relations, McCarthy said. The union’s grievances include overtime being offered to call firefighters before full-time staff, new pay rules, a prohibition on leaving the station for more than 30 minutes and the end of a long-standing practice where off-island based employees were picked up at the ferry docks, McCarthy said.
Desrosiers, who lives in Falmouth, was hired as a full-time firefighter/paramedic, he said. There was no indication when he signed on that the firefighter portion of his job would be in jeopardy, or that the merger was not going to be permanent, he said.
“There were no stipulations attached,” he said, noting that animosity between the call firefighters and the full-time staff still lingers.
“The working environment is not great,” he said. There is little communication between officers and the people on the shift, he said. “It’s not a great place to be right now.”
In his latest report, Jones also wrote that the transfer service needs to be looked at, suggesting the department put together the annual costs of the service and work out a financial agreement with the hospital.
Oak Bluffs receives no reimbursement for the hospital transfers, Rose said.
It is not clear when the switch will be made or what affect it will have on the full-time staff. Negotiations are ongoing but the union has not heard from the town since the selectmen’s vote, McCarthy said.
The chief said, “There are moments where things are a little strenuous,” but everyone is dedicated to continuing the job of keeping the people of Oak Bluffs safe.
There was a kitchen fire on Wednesday night, and, despite the tensions, the response was great, he said.
“It went seamlessly,” he said. “It hasn’t affected anything.”