INSTEAD OF RUSHING into the ambulance, turning the key and

taking off, emergency workers in Port Jefferson had to take several extra

time-consuming steps last winter.

The added routine: Unplug the ambulance from the building, where electricity

had been keeping it warm inside. Pull out the space heater. Grab cold-sensitive

medical supplies from the building and put them into the ambulance.

"That assumes that the weather is just cold, that there isn't snow or ice,"

said volunteer Michael Ryan, who estimated that response times went up by as

many as three minutes in cold weather last year.

Although Port Jefferson Volunteer Ambulance Inc. had hoped the Town of

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Brookhaven would finish building new headquarters large enough to house their

two new ambulances by this winter, volunteers fear a repeat of last season. The

new ones, which can't fit in the old building, remain outside covered by a

green canvas tent.

"Running a space heater in the back of an ambulance ... It's not something I'd

like to do for a long time," said Ken Milau, the president of the ambulance

corps, which serves about 31,000 residents.

Town officials said a string of circumstances delayed the project. The town is

also building ambulance facilities in Medford and East Moriches, and are

experiencing delays there as well. But those departments are still able to fit

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their equipment into their old buildings while they wait.

When the town sought bids for the different parts of the entire project, some

came in too high, and in other cases there was no competition, said Brookhaven

Town Attorney Annette Eaderesto. So the town had to consider different designs

and advertise again and request new bids. "That sometimes takes time," she said.

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On Tuesday, the town awarded contracts for plumbing, roofing and rough

carpentry. It also approved money to replace the soil and a payment for

previous plumbing work. Contracts for the interior of the building should be

awarded next.

Barring any weather disasters, the building should be essentially completed by

Jan. 1, Eaderesto said.

A frustrated Ryan isn't holding his breath. "We're homeless," he said.

"I'm not a betting man, but probably in two months, somebody's going to look at

someone cross-eyed" and the project will be held up again, he said.

When the ambulance service was established in 1959, it used a maintenance

garage donated by J.T. Mather Memorial Hospital, Ryan said. In 1964, members

built a two-bay garage on hospital grounds. Since 1982, volunteers have

operated out of a building on North Country Road. They began pursuing a new

building about six years ago.

The town voted to approve a $600,000 bond for the Port Jefferson project in

August, 1998. The other two ambulance company buildings will each cost $600,000

as well.

But residents say they have seen little progress since concrete was poured and

walls went up.

Material for all three ambulance construction projects has been exposed to

inclement weather for the past six months and may be deteriorating, according

to a letter written by Joseph Mineo, the town employee in charge of the

projects. The letter states that the structures have visibly warped and the

trusses have sunk several inches into the ground.

Lori Baldassare, president of the Mount Sinai Civic Association, said she is

concerned that morale is low and staffing is inadequate. "They've been promised

this building forever, and if you don't have people to respond-the two things

coupled together create a very dangerous situation for us."