Long Island has an abundance of firehouses, but they are not always where they're most needed.
Stewart Manor's firehouse protects an area so small, it doesn't include the homes across the street. Its area along the Nassau-Queens border is so thick with fire departments that a burning home on some streets there could have pumpers from 13 different firehouses at the curb within three minutes if need be.
But blazes in the $2 million Gold Coast homes on Laurel Hollow's Ridge Road have an average of 12 minutes to burn unchecked before firefighters can race from their nearest station, 41/2 miles away.
Overall, there are about twice as many firehouses as called for under national insurance standards, a Newsday computer analysis found.
The imbalance is most pronounced in Nassau County. Almost 60 percent of the residents there have three or more fire stations within the 11/2-mile drive of their homes recommended in the standards -- and 6 percent of residents have none within that distance.
While just 14 percent of Suffolk County residents have three or more stations within range, the analysis found, many residents in the Babylon and Patchogue areas have anywhere from five to seven firehouses that close.
'Does it really make sense?'
In the areas that have more than enough firehouses, though, boundaries between agencies' territories mean that residents may not get the benefit of that abundance, waiting for an engine from their home department even though another department's firehouse may be closer.
"You have to ask yourself, does it really make sense to maintain all this extra equipment and real estate?" asks Stewart Manor Mayor Joseph Troiano. "Do we need all these firehouses?"
If you plot the location of Nassau's 176 firehouses on a map, a clump of dots almost obscures Merrick Road near Lynbrook and Rockville Centre, and another cluster blooms in the Floral Park area. But much of northern Oyster Bay Town, the tony part, is blank.
People in Upper Brookville and East Norwich are among the 6 percent of Nassau's residents who have no firehouses within a 1 1/2-mile drive.
On the other hand, Lynbrook, a village of just two square miles, has six firehouses, and neighboring Rockville Centre has another six.
If a fire broke out near the corner of South Park Avenue and Riverside Drive near the border between the two villages, at least 17 fire stations, including seven from other departments, are within the 11/2 miles called for in insurance industry standards.
"The public loves it," said Lynbrook Mayor Eugene Scarpato. "Why would we cut one out when they're volunteers? They don't get paid, other than the little perks that they get. Why would we want to cut that? Well, you might say we could do without one. I don't know. I've never tried. I wouldn't try it and why should I?"
One explanation volunteers offer for the imbalance is that wealthier areas are so thinly populated that there is limited value in building fire stations there.
Where the volunteers were
Another reason, they acknowledge, is that many firehouses were built where the volunteers were.
Volunteer memberships were once so coveted in southern Nassau that would-be firefighters incorporated new companies one after the other, jockeying for territories to serve, explained former Lynbrook Chief Michael Chiaramonte, a national authority on retaining volunteers.
It's a common pattern throughout the Northeast, where firehouses were often built by private, incorporated fire companies without much government input or planning.
The location of stations often has had more to do with what properties were available, the cost and who owned them, rather than strategic planning, said Carroll Buracker, a Virginia-based fire consultant.
The Melville Fire District ignored a 1997 study it had commissioned from another consultant who had advised it to build a fourth station in the southwest corner of the district, home to large office parks and warehouse distribution centers but no firehouse.
Instead, the district built one northeast of its headquarters on land that the consultants had recommended it sell as surplus.
Developer Alvin Benjamin had given the district $1 million to pay for that firehouse at Old Country Road and New York Avenue, which is across from his new subdivision, The Greens at Half Hollow.
If you build it ...
You have to build fire stations where the members are, not the calls for help, explained Melville Commissioner Salvatore Silvestre.
"We don't have personnel down at the south end of the district," he said. "We built a firehouse on the south end of the district and it was unmanned, so now it's just a storage area for us. Now what? Build another one? For nobody coming? Doesn't make sense, does it?"
Once a firehouse is built, it can be very hard to close.
"In some cases, there's a long history where the father, the grandfather and the great-grandfather were part of a volunteer fire department," Buracker said.
"When anyone talks about moving those or phasing them out ... sometimes the emotions get in the way."
William Swift, a trustee of the Glenwood Landing Fire Department and former chairman of the Nassau fire commission, says residents wouldn't stand for closing firehouses, either.
"If you were to close down firehouses on Long Island, you'd have the same problem as the mayor of New York -- you'd have people complaining," Swift said, referring to the lingering bitterness over Mayor Michael Bloomberg's closure of three firehouses two years ago.
"If you think about people's safety and protection, the more firehouses, the better."
But having plenty of firehouses nearby is no guarantee of rapid service because of district boundaries.
If a building in 100 block of Wantagh Avenue in Levittown were to burn, help would not come from the nearest Levittown firehouse, a quarter-mile away, because those buildings fall within the Wantagh Fire District.
Instead, Wantagh would send an engine from its nearest station three miles distant and only ask for help from Levittown if it couldn't raise its own crew.
Such help is referred to as mutual aid, and agreements negotiated among agencies vary.
Some automatically respond to calls in their neighbors' territory, but most must wait to be asked for help because of the strong value departments place on their independence.
If volunteers are slow to answer a call for help, it scarcely matters how many firehouses are nearby.
Lynbrook's Hendrickson Avenue residents, surrounded by four of the village's own fire stations and nine from other jurisdictions, waited an average of 10 minutes for help in 2003 and 2004, according to county dispatch records. Eight of those minutes were waiting for volunteers to assemble a crew.