After the Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department (BCVFD) receives an emergency call, volunteers hurry into a four-by-four-foot nook and struggle not to hit each other while retrieving their gear out of small, wooden cubbies. Sometimes the crew must pull out a fire engine or ambulance to reach the appropriate vehicle. The firefighters then squeeze in through the passenger side and rush out to serve the 20-block-long island in Jamaica Bay, Queens.
The two-decade quest to build a replacement for the BCVFD’s century-old, single-garage facility gained access to long sought federal funds this summer. Now the firefighters aim to have the state-sponsored project prepared for contract bidding by about September.
“It’s been years and years of headaches – this dream began before any of us were here,” said BCVFD Captain Ed Wilmar, 30. “Now Schumer (D- NY) is pushing, and the new governor is on board too. So it looks like a home run.”
The BCVFD, which relies on a roughly $60,000 annual budget composed mostly of community donations, bought a 350-by-300-foot plot of land on the island’s main artery, Cross Bay Boulevard, for $600,000 in 1993. Fundraising efforts accelerated in 2005 when a federal law awarded the BCVFD $2 million as long as the department raised $400,000 or 20 percent of the funds. However, according to the New York Times, the city refused to authorize the project, claiming it would be held financially responsible for an underfunded project.
“The mayor can’t say, ‘Okay, we’ll help you build your firehouse’ and then in the same day close FDNY houses,” said Wilmar, a 19-year volunteer at the BCVFD. “So he said, ‘If you can figure out a way to build this without involving the city, I’m all for it.’ And that’s what we did.”
New York State Legislature authorized the use of the $2 million this August. Annual fundraising drives, Mardi Gras parties, bake sales, door-to-door solicitation, can-begging, and “any kind of fundraising event you can think of” earned the BCVFD the needed $400,000. Now the BCVFD must work out a few details with the two New York state agencies supervising the project and get a zoning variance before bidding on the project can begin.
“It will be the first 100 percent green fire house in the state of New York,” said Wilmar, one of 2,918 living in Broad Channel. “Geothermal heating and cooling will be cost effective when you’re running bills later on…and a lot more companies will be more apt to get involved.”
Wilmar estimates constructing the unfurnished garage will cost less than $2 million. The firefighters hope to enlist locals to commit services and equipment for free using “work in kind” contracts. Chief Daniel McIntyre has secured $250,000 for solar panels that will later route excess electricity to ConEdison for resale.
Moving away from the current 15 Noel Rd. building, which was first constructed to house wagon hoses, will alleviate traffic from the nearby subway station and the congestion that comes with being located in the “epicenter” that developed on one of Broad Channel’s oldest streets.
“Up there, we’ll be pulling right up onto the main boulevard and its likely they will be putting traffic signals in there that we can control,” said Wilmar.
Up there, at Cross Bay Boulevard and West Third Road, a higher altitude will make the new firehouse a haven during floods when it is often difficult for the nearest city firefighter corps to drive across bridges to the island. Spaciousness will allow the BCVFD to move its rescue boat inside and house new fire engine models, which don’t fit in the Noel Road garage. The half paper, half digital dispatch system will be completely computerized during the move.
Broad Channel resident Daniel Marston, 37, said the BCVFD needs up to date facilities given the island’s remoteness.
“They call Rockaway the sixth borough, and here is kind of the end of New York,” said Marston. “I’m glad they’re here.”
Wilmar estimates the BCVFD arrives before the FDNY or city ambulances 90 percent of the time. Of the roughly 400 annual calls the vollies field, half seek EMS aid and half relate to fires.
The 48 volunteers’ familiarity with the island made their cause “very important” to Broad Channel resident Margaret Depalma, 70.
“I called when I needed an ambulance, and they took me right where I wanted,” said Depalma. “Plus they were able to followup. As my neighbors, they knew where I was.”