Top Oyster Bay officials drive town cars equipped with flashing red emergency lights and, in some cases, sirens, while Long Island's other town, city and county governments limit installation of such equipment to traditional emergency response vehicles.
Town officials with police lights in their unmarked vehicles include Supervisor John Venditto, planning Commissioner Frank Ippolito and Comptroller Robert McEvoy, in addition to public safety and emergency management personnel.
Other Long Island towns, cities and counties restrict specially equipped cars to first responders. East Hampton is the only other town to provide such a car to the supervisor -- and East Hampton Supervisor Larry Cantwell says he doesn't use the flashing lights.
The state's Vehicle & Traffic Law states that red and white flashing lights or a siren are only for "authorized emergency vehicles." The law defines those as ambulances and vehicles used by police and firefighters, as well as correction, civil defense, blood delivery, county emergency medical services, environmental emergency response, sanitation patrol, hazardous materials emergency and armed forces ordnance-disposal personnel.
State law defines a police vehicle as being owned by a town or city and operated by its police department or law enforcement agency. None of the Oyster Bay officials with the specially equipped cars is a police officer or a licensed peace officer who can carry a gun or make arrests.
Venditto said the vehicles have been assigned since 2006, when the town formed an Emergency Management Committee. The lights and sirens allow the 16 officials to quickly respond to events "to assess imminent threats to the public and often help mitigate a crisis situation," he said.
The equipment was installed by Plainview-based Mobile Fleet for $3,000 to $5,000 per car, Oyster Bay officials said.
In contrast, the Town of Hempstead paid $1,300 per vehicle to have lights and sirens installed on the three vehicles used by the public safety department, officials reported. Huntington spokesman A.J. Carter said the town's general services department retrofitted its eight vehicles with lights and sirens for the fire marshal's and harbor master's offices, and "the cost of the actual equipment was small."
In Oyster Bay, town attorney and Deputy Supervisor Leonard Genova determines who receives the 16 cars -- and drives one himself. He said the flashing red lights are necessary to get into areas where there may be congestion or through police lines or to mark hazards.
Officials with other Long Island towns, as well as Nassau and Suffolk counties, define the need for such emergency equipment more narrowly.
In Islip Town, fire marshals and public safety officers in marked cars, airport law enforcement and hazmat officials have lights and sirens. In North Hempstead, the Harbor Patrol has one vehicle with red flashing lights but no siren, and it is shared by bay constables. The City of Long Beach provides emergency-equipped vehicles only to first responders.
Brookhaven assigned cars with lights and sirens to 13 people -- all members of the fire marshal's office. Smithtown has 14 cars with the emergency equipment, but they are shared by 13 fire marshals, 19 park rangers, 15 bay constables and two top public safety department administrators.
Cantwell said he inherited an SUV equipped with emergency lights from his predecessor, but has never used the equipment. Glen Cove Mayor Reginald Spinello said he declined the use of a city vehicle when he took office in January.
His predecessor, Ralph Suozzi, drove one equipped with lights and sirens.
Suozzi said he used his police vehicle to respond to emergencies, and used the flashing lights, but never the siren. "I was a de facto first-responder as mayor," he said. "I never used the flashing lights to go through red lights or went above the speed limit."The Suffolk County fire and rescue commissioner is the only member of the administration with a car that has emergency lights or sirens, officials said. In Nassau, only first responders have cars with red lights or sirens.
Several have them
Oyster Bay officials with enhanced vehicles include more traditional first responders such as Michael Gange, the director of emergency management in the public safety department; public safety commissioner Justin McCaffery, a former police officer; and his deputy commissioners -- Barry Bree, Robert Mangano and Michael Craft; and harbormaster John Antetomasso.
Public works commissioner Richard Betz, deputy public works commissioner Michael Cipriano and assistant to the public works commissioner Richard Porcelli also have cars with red lights. Highway commissioner Kevin Hanifan, parks commissioner Frank Nocerino and environmental resources commissioner Neil Bergin also drive town vehicles with flashing lights.
McEvoy, the comptroller, has an enhanced vehicle because he might have to deal with an insurance issue in a disaster. He is a former Oyster Bay fire chief and is a member of the town's Fire Advisory Board, Genova said.
"The fact that they respond to emergency situations puts them under the umbrella of the state law," Genova said.
In other towns, those operating cars with flashing lights or sirens have taken special safety training classes. Genova said the Oyster Bay officials have not had that training because they are not supposed to use the equipment to get to an emergency scene, only when they arrive there.
He said the most recent example was a large fire in North Massapequa several weeks ago, when he and Venditto used red flashing lights to approach the scene through heavy smoke "because you couldn't see five feet in front of you, so we used the lights to gain access safely to the emergency scene."
The other accepted and frequent use of the red lights, he said, is "for warning purposes with the vehicle stationary to protect the public from hazardous situations. For example, if there's a downed tree or wire in a storm."
Genova said employees are given verbal instructions on the proper use of the equipment. But there is no written town policy covering when to use the lights or prohibitions on exceeding the speed limit with the lights on because there have been no documented reports of misuse, he said.