Against a backdrop of two drownings on Atlantic Ocean beaches over the summer, Chilmark selectmen and public safety officials have begun to tackle the complicated problem of improving safety and developing a more sophisticated emergency response and rescue system on beaches, especially remote, private beaches with limited vehicle access.
Town police chief Brian Cioffi led the discussion.
Chief Cioffi said he has been talking with the town beach committee and rescue workers about various options for improving safety on town beaches. No new rules or procedures have been decided yet, but the chief said he hopes to have a plan ready by the start of next summer.
“Ultimately what I would like to see come out of this meeting is to develop an emergency plan,” said Chief Cioffi. “This isn’t for anything other than to make sure that we can provide service to someone in trouble.”
One suggestion was a numbering system for the entire Chilmark shoreline. Selectmen agreed that numbers displayed at the entrance to various beach roads and along the beaches might help people give rescue workers a clear location in case of an emergency. It was also suggested that the numbers could be accompanied by colors, much like the system used in large parking lots to help people remember where they parked their cars.
Chief Cioffi said he had spoken with Chilmark residents who have access to private beaches to get their ideas as well. He said most were willing to cooperate but unsure how to move forward. One suggestion called for making private beaches easily accessible to all-terrain rescue vehicles.
“Incidents will occur at Quansoo more than other places because they have the most people in the water [and] on the beach,” said selectman J.B. Riggs Parker. Mr. Parker said the narrow wooden bridge across the Tisbury Great Pond prevents most vehicles from getting to the beach, but Quansoo residents like the rustic bridge and would likely object to changing it. Chief Cioffi said some residents were also concerned that widening the bridge would bring non-emergency all-terrain vehicles onto the beach.
He said a lock-and-key system could solve the problem.
“If they want rescue vehicles to have access they may need to be flexible,” observed Mr. Parker.
Narrow, unmarked roads make it difficult for rescue workers to reach the shore in case of emergency. Navigation systems don’t always work in the rural reaches of the Island. And Chief Cioffi said there isn’t enough time for temporary officers brought onto the force in the summer to learn all the roadways. “I think if we can take a map of the town [and] come up with a system as a group . . . anything to save a life I think is worth it,” the chief said.
It was a tragic summer on Chilmark beaches. Two people drowned within one week on the south shore.
The first drowning occurred on Quansoo Beach in early August. The person who called 911 to report a swimmer in distress did not know the exact location, and emergency responders were initially dispatched to the wrong place.
The second incident happened less than a week later at Abel’s Hill Beach. Rescue personnel had to use small boats to cross Chilmark Pond and an all-terrain vehicle to reach the beach. Lifeguards from Lucy Vincent Beach also ran down the beach to respond to the scene.
Chief Cioffi suggested involving harbor masters and the U.S. Coast Guard in the discussion as well.
Chilmark beach committee superintendent Martina Mastromonaco said she thought a numbering system along the shore is a great idea. “It works really well in the state forests . . . [and] it only takes a four-by-four and a number. It’s really not expensive,” she said. But she added another concern to the discussion. “We do have a terrible time with communication,” she said of Chilmark guards. “The communications center at the airport cannot hear me on my emergency channel.”
Ms. Mastromonaco said putting an antenna on the roof of the lifeguard shack at Lucy Vincent has improved radio communication, but that it’s still far from perfect. Town executive secretary Tim Carroll said a new communication tower at Peaked Hill might help the situation. He agreed to look into obtaining the necessary equipment.
Mr. Parker raised a related, ongoing subject. “We need to get cell service in this town. Good cell service,” he said. “The more citizens who support it, the more likely you are to get it.”
Ms. Mastromonaco also recommended more lifeguards at town beaches. “I have increased staff over the years, [but] we are continuously looking at how we can make it safer,” she said. At Lucy Vincent Beach, for instance, she suggested adding at least two to three more guards, including a walking guard, in a system of rotation. The rocky shoreline and the cliff that divides the beach in two sections at high tide make Lucy Vincent especially difficult to monitor, she said.
Chief Cioffi was adamant about continuing the discussion through the off-season.
“It’s just getting people together to develop this plan so that we have it in place by next summer,” he said.
by Megan Dooley