It can carry four firefighters 95 feet into the air to pluck people from multistory buildings, and collapse cinder-block walls with the force of its 2,000-gallon-per-minute stream of water.

"Desire to serve," reads the decal on the door.

But in four years, Yaphank's 30-ton, 45-foot-long Pierce aerial platform ladder truck hasn't gotten much use.

Since its delivery in the spring of 2001, the $700,000 truck has fought only two fires -- one in a pile of discarded wooden pallets this summer and the other at a junkyard in neighboring Medford two months ago. At the six house fires it has responded to, the truck stood with its 500-horsepower motor idling as firefighters went about their work by taking the stairs or climbing hand ladders.

"Knock on wood, but we haven't really needed it," said Chief Robert Walther, who pointed out that the truck is heavily loaded with hand ladders and lifesaving equipment that come in handy at an emergency. "If that truck is not there, I'm short-handed ... Fortunately, I haven't had to use it 100 percent every day for everything that goes on, but without it, we're lost."

Long Island's 179 fire agencies have the best trucks money can buy, and plenty of them: more than New York City and the city and county of Los Angeles put together, which protect almost three times as much land and six times as many people and answer more than 12 times as many calls for help.

And because of Long Island's volunteer shortage, departments often have more trucks than they can fill.

"What I need is volunteers," Mike Carrucci, then a Deer Park fire commissioner, said before the district bought a new pumper four years ago. "We can't even get two trucks out, let alone four and five."

Privately, some officials say that shortage, and the decline in serious fires, mean their costliest trucks get more use in the fire department parades that roll down Main Street almost every weekend from spring to fall than they do in emergencies.

In any given year, most Long Island departments have more fire trucks than fires that need an engine and hose to put them out, records show.

The newest trucks are so large they sometimes don't fit in the departments' own firehouses or down tight neighborhood streets.

And the abundance of top-flight fire equipment extends beyond engines and ladders.

Heavy rescue trucks with specialized tools to cut open wrecked cars and winch firefighters into collapsed spaces can cost $750,000 or more. The New York Fire Department owns one heavy rescue truck for each of its five boroughs, plus a single spare for use citywide. Long Island fire agencies own 146.

Long Island departments commonly provide their unpaid chiefs and each of their assistant chiefs with the use of sport-utility vehicles loaded with electronics. In larger districts there are often personal-use cars for supervisors and mechanics, buses for trips to the county fire academy, parades and funerals, and "district vehicles" used by commissioners.

Though the U.S. Coast Guard and police marine bureaus have primary responsibility for water rescues, fire agencies maintain 129 boats for that purpose. Lakeland owns a hovercraft; Centerport, a pair of Jet Skis; Wantagh, a $75,000 fireboat.

Premium apparatus

Fire districts also use tax money to house, maintain and insure a variety of vehicles not used in firefighting, such as antique fire trucks for parades and high-performance racing vehicles for their tournaments.

There also is no regional coordination of equipment purchases, and under state purchasing laws fire officials can pretty much pick out whatever they want: thousands of dollars worth of gold-leaf decorations, custom-built cabs for 10, and elaborate computerized controls.

Long Island volunteers enjoy a reputation as being well trained, well organized and well funded, said Les Adams, a Maryland-based fire consultant.

"They are known for buying the newest and the latest fire apparatus -- a lot of chrome -- and almost like money is no object," he said.

Fred Heffel, a career New York City fire marshal and former South Farmingdale fire commissioner, has never forgotten what a salesman for the Pierce Fire Apparatus Co. once told him during a visit to its plant in Wisconsin.

"There's $100,000 trucks, there's $200,000 trucks, there's $300,000 trucks," the salesman said, "and then there's Long Island fire trucks."

This appetite for premium apparatus goes a long way toward explaining surveys showing that Long Island's volunteer fire departments cost three times as much to operate as the average volunteer department in the Northeast.

Long Island's apparatus glut is an extreme example of a phenomenon common to volunteer fire departments in affluent suburbs across the country. When firefighting is administered at the community level rather than by the town or county, duplication of equipment often results, industry experts say.

Justifying the purchases

It's part of the reason Long Island's volunteer fire service, though cheaper per resident, costs more per call than the paid New York Fire Department. To local fire-service leaders, though, their equipment is a point of pride, not waste.

"They [New York City officials] don't buy the apparatus that we buy, and they don't pay the kind of bucks for their apparatus that we do because they don't put the options into their fire apparatus that the volunteers do," said William Swift, a Glenwood Landing volunteer trustee, a paid Syosset Fire District mechanic, a former chairman of the Nassau Fire Commission and a fire truck salesman.

"There are 20 things you won't find on a city rig but you'll find it on a Nassau County rig."

The Centereach Fire District spent $394,000 in 2003 for a new fire engine with a deck gun that can aim an industrial-strength blast of water by remote control.

North Massapequa recently paid $501,622 for a new Pierce pumper with a state-of-the-art system that uses compressed air to spray flame-smothering foam under the light of two 500-watt telescoping floodlights.

Melville owns two 3,000 gallon-per-minute pumpers that are 50 percent more powerful than anything in the arsenal of the FDNY. Yet no hydrant in the Melville district is capable of producing that much water.

To use the pumper at full capacity, multiple water lines must be tapped, Melville fire commission Chairman Salvatore Silvestri said.

Silvestri justified the purchases by pointing to Melville's tangle of office parks and warehouses.

"We're a mini-metropolis," he said.

Some frustrated volunteers see these purchases as overkill, pure and simple.

"Everything is ego-driven, everything is outdoing the Joneses," said a firefighter in the Village of Hempstead who didn't want his name used because he didn't want to make enemies. "They'll say, 'North Merrick got a new pumper? We have to top them. They got chrome rims? We want chrome rims with inlay.' "

For the most part, Long Island fire officials justify their vehicles by pointing to ever-stricter national fire equipment standards, a patchwork of voluntary guidelines and federal requirements that they say more affluent communities have no excuse to ignore.

The design of fire trucks is governed by standards of the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit technical advisory group.

Exceeding standards

A watershed 1987 decision by the NFPA required all fire trucks to have enclosed cabs because firefighter falls from the back of moving engines had been a leading cause of death in the line of duty.

The important safety advance drove spending for bigger, more expensive trucks nationwide.

The number of trucks each community should have is spelled out by the Insurance Services Office, a nationwide agency that helps insurance companies set fire insurance rates.

Under the standards, fire departments should have a pumper stationed within 1.5 miles of developed areas and a ladder truck within 2.5 miles of areas that have more than five warehouses, factories or buildings of at least three stories.

Long Island departments enjoy much better ISO ratings than New York State or the nation as a whole, the agency said, but that has less to do with the number of fire trucks than with the fact that much of the region is served by fire hydrants with good water pressure.

Gregory Pittel, who rated Long Island fire agencies for ISO in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said many of the departments he visited had more equipment than they needed to meet standards.

"Out of every four fire departments that had a ladder , there was probably one that did not need it," to satisfy ISO standards, Pittel said.

Duplication of equipment

Fire agencies could still earn good ISO ratings without buying as much equipment as standards call for, said Dennis Gage, chief of ISO's national rating program.

Individual fire departments can do without certain pieces of equipment if a neighboring department is prepared to send that truck or pumper as specified in a formal mutual-aid plan.

Many Long Island departments have informal mutual-aid arrangements with their neighbors, but the kind of official commitments ISO has in mind, which require joint planning and training between departments, are uncommon here.

"Is there a duplication of equipment? Yeah, I'll be the first to say there is, but each district has to protect their own," said former Mastic Commissioner Charles Mineo. "Let's say Mastic had the only aerial [ladder truck] in the area and Brookhaven called us, and, God forbid, Mastic had a fire at the same time and somebody died -- you'd say, 'What the heck are you doing in Brookhaven when you were supposed to be in Mastic?' "

As of September, Mastic's aerial truck had gone on 27 calls and was present at two working fires since it went into service in 2002, according to county records.

Other fire officials counter that when a department sends its own equipment out of the district on a mutual-aid call, a third department is routinely called upon to provide backup.

Elmont fire officials maintain a spare ladder truck that they use at fires in other communities. That leaves Elmont's two other ladder trucks free to protect its own 5.7-square-mile district.

Decentralized approach

The smaller the community, the more duplication results from Long Island's decentralized approach to fire equipment, according to a Newsday survey of emergency data and department fleets.

The 36 smallest Long Island fire districts, measuring less than 2 square miles each, fought a total of 87 working fires in 2003, records show. They had 113 pumpers and ladder trucks to fight them.

Five of the agencies serving the smallest areas are clustered along the Queens border and cover six-tenths of a square mile altogether: Bellerose, Bellerose Terrace, Floral Park Centre, South Floral Park and Stewart Manor.

In 2000, according to the last tally circulated by county dispatchers, those five agencies had 10 pumpers and a ladder truck among them and answered 422 alarms -- none of which required the use of a fire engine.

"I said, 'Do we need all these engines and their costs?' " said former Stewart Manor Chief Thomas Foley, who failed a decade ago in a bid to have the departments merge and is now volunteering in the Garden City Fire Department.

History and tradition play a strong role in how agency lines are drawn.

The Roslyn Fire Department covers its 11.7-square-mile area with two separate fire companies, an arrangement that dates back a century to when steamer engines were too heavy for horses to haul from the harborfront to the highlands.

The companies, Rescue and Highlands, don't pool their heavy apparatus or coordinate purchases, officials said. Each company in the last few years has bought two of the latest in fire trucks, a hybrid pumper/aerial ladder truck called a quint.

Highlands already had an aerial ladder truck; so Roslyn, a district that gets about a dozen working fires each year, has nine trucks to fight them with, including five ladder trucks.

Last year, Rescue officials rebuffed an invitation to become part of Highlands, but talks are continuing.

"It's ridiculous," said John Ceriello, an honorary Highlands member who is a New York City fire lieutenant.

Ceriello thinks departments should be consolidated under some kind of regional authority. "Because you don't have an overseer on the county level, on any regional level, there's no one to say, 'No, you can't do that.' "

East Hills Mayor Michael Koblenz, whose village is served by both companies, said he has tried to persuade them to merge, so far with no success.

"I have offered to sit as a nonvoting member of their board to participate," he said, "and we were told we weren't welcome unless we joined the fire department."

James McCann, the Highlands president, is unapologetic. "If you want to join, Mayor Koblenz, come on down," he said in an interview. "If you want to have some input, join. My people put me in to serve in their best interest."

'So much pride'

Nationwide, stressed departments in growing areas have frequently turned to consolidation, and one of the first results has been the shedding of equipment, industry experts said. Orange County, Calif., is an affluent suburban region of 1.2 million residents south of Los Angeles, with a mix of buildings and communities similar to Long Island's. The Orange County Fire Authority, a combination department of paid and volunteer firefighters, protects 516 square miles, an area 43 percent the size of Nassau and Suffolk counties.

They do it with less than one-tenth the equipment: 81 engines, 14 ladder trucks and one heavy rescue truck, compared to 693 engines, 190 ladders and 146 heavy rescue trucks on Long Island.

"We're very fond of our fire engines," said Orange County Battalion Chief Scott Brown. "There is so much emotion around them, so much pride, it's the very reason there is an allure to this profession."

That pride was on display on a summer night on Long Island four years ago when Deer Park commissioners debated the need to replace a scarcely used 15-year-old pumper with a fancier one.

After some debate about whether the engine was really needed, the commissioners, saying the volunteers deserved the best equipment, voted 4-1 to go ahead with the purchase. They chose to go with the higher of two bids at $450,000.

"I would spend any amount of money we have to give them the right equipment to do the right job," said Anthony Macaluso, then the board chairman.

Stacey Altherr contributed to this story.

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