‘The cart before the horse’

Bay Shore revitalization outpaces fire district resources


There is a well-known adage in the fire and rescue service that states that “you prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.” As the Bay Shore Fire District’s response area grows in size and complexity, preparing for the worst has become more challenging and more costly. 

With the revitalization of downtown Bay Shore, post-COVID migration to the suburbs, and the expansion of Southside Hospital into South Shore University Medical Center attracting medical professionals, the population of the Bay Shore Fire District’s response area grew from 34,000 in 2020 to just under 40,000 estimated residents present day.

With an ever-increasing amount of apartment buildings up to six stories high, and with the hospital’s expansion to up to seven stories high in some areas, the fire district is increasingly concerned that the tall, vast structures are not conducive with the resources and gear available to them.

The Bay Shore Fire District maintains three fire stations throughout the response area. In total, throughout the three fire stations, there are five class A pumpers (engines), one 109-foot straight stick ladder truck without a bucket, one 75-foot tower ladder with a bucket, one heavy rescue truck, various scene support vehicles, and various water rescue equipment and vehicles. Neither the 109- or 75-foot ladders are equipped with pumps or carry water, but if hooked up to an engine, water could be flowed into the master stream nozzle of the 75-foot tower. The 109-foot ladder is used primarily for rescues or to get onto the roof of a building.

For context, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) along with the International Association of Fire Fighters have maintained that two engines (pumpers), one ladder truck, 15 Class A firefighters, one Incident Commander, and a Safety Officer is the minimum amount of personnel and equipment necessary to safely fight a one room fire in a single-family home. With many new high-density apartment complexes being constructed at four and five stories high, the 75-foot ladder truck has limited effectiveness on these new structures due to their massive size and height, sparking concerns among the Bay Shore Fire District about their extinguishing ability should a fire event occur in these complexes.

The engineered light-weight wood that is increasingly used in high-density multi-story apartment complexes is another critical concern for the Bay Shore Fire Department.

According to William Stenger, the Bay Shore Fire District manager, the engineered lightweight wood structural building components used in these structures are attractive to the developers and builders because of their availability, ability to span larger areas, cost effectiveness compared to steel, and ease of installation. However, testing and empirical data shows that when these engineered lightweight wood components are exposed to fire, they fail very rapidly and very catastrophically.

Examples of recently constructed apartments with lightweight wood frames include the four-story Maple Avenue Lofts with 90 apartment units, the four-story Shoregate Apartments with 418 apartment units, and the five-story North District Lofts with 90 units.

While buildings are outfitted with fire sprinkler systems, per New York State Building Codes, it is important to note that there have been many cases where fire sprinkler systems have failed to put out fires due to presence of accelerants, contents of the space, and the quantity and location of the sprinklers.

If Bay Shore Fire District is so concerned about the increase in new developments outpacing their current resources, how were these structures and complexes constructed in the first place without a supplemental increase in the fire district’s resources and equipment?

According to Stenger, they were not consulted in the early planning process, and are now playing “catch up.”

“It is important to note that the fire district and other area emergency services are not, as a practice, solicited to provide an impact assessment when projects of the scale and complexity that we are seeing being built are going through the review and permitting process (in many cases, we don’t find out about the project until we see ‘shovels in the ground’),” explained Stenger.

A spokesperson for the Town of Islip also weighed in on the issue.

“Each of these buildings [Shoregate Apartments, North District Lofts, and Maple Avenue Lofts] was the subject of at least two public hearings, and this issue was never raised,” shared a spokesperson for the Town of Islip. “All new construction is required to conform to the NYS Building and NYS Fire Code. The fire marshal reviews the site plans for fire access/safety and issues a permit before the installation or alteration of any fire protection system. He also inspects the building before issuance of the CO.”

While Islip Town councilman Michael McElwee was only sworn in to his Council District 3 seat in January, he also offered his perspective about the extent that the Bay Shore Fire District is consulted during the planning process of developments.

“There is certainly some input [from the fire district], because I know that before the building can open, the fire department and the fire marshal have to go through the building and they do inspections,” shared McElwee. “I actually did meet with the fire department back when I was working with the state Assembly and talked to them about going forward. I think in the planning stages, they should have a seat at the table, at least to put some input in.”

So why does the BSFD not have a “seat at the table” during the early stages of planning? Suffolk County Legis. Samuel Gonzalez, who now represents a large area of Bay Shore following redistricting, has a theory.

“It seems that the Town of Islip has put the cart before the horse, and they go forward in these projects without having the Bay Shore Fire District at the table when these developments are about to begin. Do we really have to have a fire, a front page in the newspapers, that six people died in a fire, to now take action? This is a tragedy waiting to happen,” expressed Gonzalez. “I know why they do not want them at the table. They would think about the families, people, human beings first. And that would create a higher cost in the developments.”

According to Stenger, the possibility of a fire event in these structures with this type of construction, size, height, and their potential for catastrophic structural failure under fire conditions is requiring the Bay Shore Fire District to rethink, retrain, retool, and re-equip in the following ways:

Contracting with Long Island Fire Technology to do building inspections to garner building information, identify specific hazards, and enter the information into our Computer Assisted Dispatch (CAD) system. This assists in developing pre-plans for specific locations (as required in the “Proposed Updated OSHA Standard for Fire Brigades”)

Outfitting all frontline apparatus with battery-powered tools, as running electric cables from a generator on an apparatus to power lights, fans, and other tools is no longer practical or possible in buildings the size and height that are being constructed. Outfitting frontline apparatus with extra hose lines and appliances in anticipation of longer “stretches” down corridors and up stairwells.

Extra training in high-rise firefighting from the Nassau County Fire Academy (Suffolk County does not have the facility).

Purchase of 100-plus-foot tower ladder truck to replace the existing 75-foot tower ladder truck (the 75-foot ladder truck has limited effectiveness on these new structures)

Purchase of new portable radios with technology that allows for each of the radios to work off of repeater sites, thereby allowing for the signal to be transmitted throughout these large structures where radio communications has historically been an issue.

The cost of the changes listed above would be a minimum of $3 million in today’s dollars.

The fire and emergency services industry has not been immune to supply chain issues and inflation in the post-COVID world. Firefighters’ gear and equipment has seen a 50 percent to 100 percent cost increase with prolonged lead times for purchases.

Still, 50 percent of the annual fiscal budget for the fire district comes from fire protection contracts within the Town of Islip and the Village of Brightwaters. Both of these entities have held the fire protection contract to a 2 percent cap, making the purchase of apparatus and equipment more difficult. 

“Of course, we are all taxpayers, so we get it, we understand holding the line at the 2 percent cap,” clarified Stenger. “The problem is, the cost of everything is outpacing it.”

Stenger went on to share that he is “banging on the doors” of Gonzalez, Sen. Martinez, Sen. Weik, and assemblyman Gandolfo, explaining the situation and the necessity for funds. The BSFD is also applying for FEMA grants.  


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