Already facing a critical shortage in staff, the Aquinnah fire department now finds itself about to be leaderless after the town fire chief said this week that he would resign by the end of the year.
In an e-mail to selectman and board chairman Jim Newman, acting fire chief Jim Vercruysse said the demands of the job are putting too much strain on his family life.
“I am losing touch with my family,” Mr. Vercruysse wrote in the e-mail. “If I was retired and had no children at home maybe I could do this but I need to preserve the most important thing in my life, my family.”
Mr. Vercruysse said he would step down effective Dec. 31.
With his departure, the ranks of the tiny town’s volunteer fire department are so thin that the department may not be able to adequately respond to a fire. There are currently nine volunteers on the squad, only one of which is fully trained. A minimum of four firefighters are needed to respond to a structure fire, said Mr. Newman.
Mr. Vercruysse has served as acting chief since Nov. 1 when longtime chief Walter Delaney stepped down after 17 years on the job.
Mr. Newman said this week that Capt. Simon Bollin and Jay Smalley will share the chief position until a full-time replacement is named. The town is accepting applications.
Mr. Bollin attended the selectmen’s meeting Tuesday to discuss the situation. “The reality is there currently isn’t a fire department in town,” he said according to draft minutes from the meeting. “You can’t fight a fire with two people. You can’t run any of the trucks with just two people,” the draft minutes state.
Mr. Bollin also said there is no one on the fire department who qualifies for the current job description of chief.
Yesterday Mr. Newman said Mr. Bollin and Mr. Smalley have the most training on the squad.
“They work very well together and these two guys and the selectmen will try to put together a fire department again,” Mr. Newman said. Mr. Smalley lives in Aquinnah and Mr. Bollin in West Tisbury.
Mr. Newman said the problem has been known for some time.
“A running joke has been that there are four fire trucks and four firemen,” Mr. Newman said. “It hasn’t been a healthy roster . . . Off the top of my head I can only think of three guys who would come all the time.”
In the event of a fire, Mr. Newman said the town will depend on mutual aid from other Island towns. And Chilmark fire chief David Norton said yesterday that his squad is always standing by, especially for the town that is a neighbor.
“We’re ready to rock and roll here,” Mr. Norton said yesterday. “It’s what we’ve been doing. They’ve been doing it for us and we’ll do the same thing for them.”
Mr. Norton said the Chilmark squad has about 24 volunteers.
Mr. Newman said he hopes to recruit more volunteers in Aquinnah. “What we really need is volunteers in town who we would train,” he said. “Over the years the numbers have definitely been dwindling and it’s our hope to have a drive and get more members and build up membership.”
Volunteers wear pagers 24 hours a day, and Mr. Newman acknowledged that the commitment can be demanding. In a July interview with the Gazette when his appointment was announced as acting chief, Mr. Vercruysse said he took the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift every night and has for the past few years.
“I did not see this coming,” Mr. Newman said. “But I certainly understand it.”
Mr. Vercruysse could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Mr. Newman said the board considered naming Mr. Bollin as acting chief because he has the most experience, but decided on a different approach.
“My response to that was that would take him off the line, which means he couldn’t go in [a building],” he said. “If he’s the chief he has to stay outside and not fight fire but direct the operation. Nor do you want to take Jay [Smalley] off the line. That’s why they’re both doing this.”
by Remy Tumin