fire fight

Cold Water on Queens Firehouse Reopening Hopes After Amazon Breakup

An FDNY operations center on Roosevelt Island, Aug. 20, 2019.
An FDNY operations center on Roosevelt Island, Aug. 20, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As Amazon pressed last winter to bring tens of thousands of jobs to Long Island City, the FDNY seemed to agree with local calls for increased emergency services in the booming area.

A fire official even told the City Council discussions for funding a long-shuttered engine company were ongoing.

But with Amazon’s plans for a Queens headquarters long extinguished, the FDNY is throwing cold water on the notion of reopening Engine 261— much to the ire of local officials and community members who say the neighborhood’s need is greater than ever. Engine 261 also responded to incidents on Roosevelt Island, which doesn’t have an active firehouse.

“Thousands of people have moved to Western Queens in the last decade and our brave firefighters are strained to capacity,” said Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Queens). “Green-lighting the rapid development of our LIC community without providing the necessary infrastructure to sustain population growth is a threat to public safety.”

In January, during the throes of the citywide Amazon controversy and a month prior to the deal’s Valentine’s Day collapse, a handful of FDNY representatives testified before the City Council’s committee on Fire and Emergency Management.

At the hearing, acting FDNY Chief John Sudnik said Long Island City’s need for additional fire and EMS services was the highest anywhere in Queens. He noted the neighborhood had been on the FDNY’s radar prior to Amazon’s November 2018 announcement of its pursuit of a Queens headquarters.

“Put simply, Long Island City is a neighborhood to which we were already considering adding resources due to the growing emergency response needs of the area,” Sudnik told the Council.

There are no current plans to reopen Engine 261, FDNY spokesperson Myles Miller said Tuesday.

City’s Fastest-Growing Neighborhood

At the hearing, Sudnik cited statistics that alarmed councilmembers: The number of incidents in Community Board 1, which includes Astoria and Long Island City, increased by 19% and response times to calls rose 9% between 2014 and 2018.

Last year, average response times in Queens for most FDNY calls, including structural fires and medical emergencies, lagged behind the citywide average.

The Roosevelt Island Bridge looking toward Astoria, Queens, Aug. 20, 2019.
The Roosevelt Island Bridge looking toward Astoria, Queens, Aug. 20, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As of the 2013-2017 American Community Survey, the Community Board 1 area had more than 173,000 residents, an increase of about 1% since the 2006-2010 survey.

Still, buildings are rising to higher heights every day in Long Island City, the fastest-developing neighborhood in the five boroughs. Since 2006, more than 20,000 apartments have been built — and upwards of 10,600 more are scheduled for completion by 2021, according to an estimate by the Long Island City Partnership.

Brent O’Leary, a local civic leader, said the city was allowing “this unchecked development without providing the infrastructure for the symptoms.”

“How can you let all of these people move in and not have a fire engine to respond?” O’Leary said. “Amazon not coming did nothing to slow down the growth of LIC. It is still booming. People are still coming.”

Cast-Away Island

Engine 261 was one six engines shuttered in 2003 by the Bloomberg administration as a money-saving measure.

Ladder and engine companies work hand-in-hand to put out fires: Ladders are tasked with locating fires, and search-and-rescue operations, while engine companies are equipped with water pumps and hoses to extinguish blazes.

Multiple firefighters said that the company, which was housed with Ladder 116 at a 29th Street firehouse, was critical to neighborhood coverage — and a key responder to emergencies on neighboring Roosevelt Island.

That narrow-two mile strip, wedged in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, has no active firehouse, despite a population last estimated in 2010 at 16,000.

Since then, the island — politically part of Manhattan, but with vehicle access only from Queens — has welcomed hundreds of new luxury waterfront apartments and is now home to Cornell’s gleaming 12-acre tech campus.

By comparison, The Bronx’s City Island, which counts roughly 4,000 residents, has its own fire engine company.

Gregory Kapinos, 41, who has lived on the island for a year, said that its unarmed public safety officers were a consistent presence, but that the lack of an engine company was shocking.

“Of course I would like to have a dedicated fire company,” Kapinos said. “They should definitely try to make one.”

Councilmember Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan), whose district includes Roosevelt Island, said “not having enough firehouses in the city puts all of us in danger.” He added he was deeply concerned that as “we’re expanding we are not seeing more firehouses.”

When there is a fire emergency on Roosevelt Island, the only way for fire trucks to respond is by a bridge connecting the island to Astoria. Engine 260, based in Dutch Kills, a half-mile from Engine 261’s previous home, is now the first line of defense, the FDNY confirmed.

Multiple other engines from Queens also could respond, leaving other neighborhoods hard-pressed for coverage, said Gerard Fitzgerald, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York.

Fitzgerald said he believed the city was “playing Russian roulette” with Roosevelt Island’s emergency coverage.

“I’m sure they have a beautiful view. I’m sure they’re paying plenty of money,” Fitzgerald said of Roosevelt Island residents. “It’s kind of a little oasis in the city, but not in the middle of the craziness. I’m sure there are some benefits to living there, but at what price?”

From 2014 to 2017, FDNY responded to an annual average of 877 incidents on Roosevelt Island, according to the island’s Public Safety Department.

Roosevelt Island does house the headquarters of the FDNY’s special operations facility, which includes a Rescue Operations Battalion that responds citywide to emergencies like aircraft crashes and scuba dive rescues, Miller said.

FDNY Ladder Company 116 with Collapse Rescue 4 in Long Island City.
FDNY Ladder Company 116 with Collapse Rescue 4 in Long Island City. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

While rescue battalions do not suppress fires, a back-up engine stationed at the Roosevelt Island facility is staffed “in times of need,” according to Miller.

But Mike Schreiber, a firefighter once stationed at Engine 261 who is also the health and safety officer for the Uniformed Firefighters Association, noted the rescue battalion was not “being dispatched on a regular basis for medical emergencies on Roosevelt Island or fires.”

Laura Feyer, a City Hall spokesperson, confirmed there aren’t currently any active discussions about re-funding Engine 261, adding that the city was “always in active conversations with the FDNY to ensure the safety of every community in New York City.”

“The safety of New Yorkers is our top priority, and Roosevelt Island already has resources in place in the event they are needed in an emergency,” Feyer added.

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