We Need To Do More To Support NFD

Maureen Searle •

To the editor: The week of August 14th was not a good one for the Nantucket Fire Department but not because of the actions of the firefighters. No, they remain community heroes, responding effectively to all the emergencies that Nantucket increasingly experiences.

No, it was a bad week because a very damning report came in, showing to all who care to see that the Nantucket Fire Department is in crisis.

To be clear, this was not a letter that I wanted to write. I want to be fair about the huge pressure on town government to respond to a myriad of acute problems that the island is experiencing. However, if indeed the fire department is in crisis, then that should call for swift and decisive action, not the bureaucratic process that the town may prefer.

I know nothing about standards for fire departments or standards of safety for firefighters. So, of course, I looked it up. When doing so, I discovered that Massachusetts has adopted the code and standards of the National Fire Protection Association. Standard 1710 - or staffing for particular kinds of fires - would seem to reflect the findings of Firefighter Cancer Consultants, but, as a non-expert, I cannot wade into the weeds.

By profession, I am a health policy analyst. I also helped with an earlier evaluation of a proposal to build a new Our Island Home. At that time, obviously, the focus was on the building, itself. Everyone seemed to agree that the building was not up to code.

The interesting thing about nursing homes is that the most vital part is not the facilities, important as they are, but the nurse staffing. In a nursing home, nursing at all levels—from nursing assistant to registered nurse—is the essence of quality of care.

One can apply this example to fire departments. The Nantucket Fire Department undeniably has a beautiful building and excellent facilities. Staffing is the issue, in this case, the number of firefighters able to respond to a fire, and their safety.

All the signs are there for those who want to see them that the department is in deep distress. The report documents the challenges.

One firefighter — a beloved member of the community — has been lost to suicide. Another has departed because he failed to be named chief, despite his qualifications and support from this fellow firefighters.

Because the town has imposed the rule of silence on its employees, the firefighters are not at liberty to speak out and let the community know directly how they feel and what they need to feel valued by the town and the community.

But, by the same token, because the firefighters cannot speak for themselves, then the town cannot tell the community that there is a lot that they don’t know and therefore they are wrong to criticize leadership. Admittedly, this is a little Orwellian.

The two newspapers—the Inquirer & Mirror and the Nantucket Current—have performed a service by ripping the veil off government and letting the community know what the situation really is for its firefighters.

I challenge the community to act. I cannot be the only voice. There have to be others, far more knowledgeable than me, who can identify the crisis and ask the town to take swift and decisive action. And, may I add, that housing cannot be the usual excuse. Where there is a will, there is a way.

And, yes, I will point to the extremely tragic case of Lahaina, another coastal community. This may be a very different situation but Nantucket cannot afford to be complacent.

Maureen Searle

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