Commissioner Paul Degen said the new EMT initiative will cost the district $75,000 a year, which won't be funded through already-thinly-stretched taxpayer dollars; rather, he said, it will be funded through revenue generated by a new communications tower – also called a cell tower or a monopole – that will be erected on the premises of Station 2 on Stony Brook Road.
While the tower serves primarily to boost communication within the fire district, it also has the capability to enhance cell phone service in the area, meaning private companies can contract with the district to purchase bandwidth.
Through the EMT program, one EMT will be on duty between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. at each of the two fire houses in Stony Brook. They are part-time, per-diem employees who are paid $13.50 per hour and who do not receive medical benefits from the district.
"Basically, it came about to increase the fire protection in the district," Degen said. "We were having a big problem turning out EMTs to respond with our ambulance. We have an advanced life support ambulance, so we need EMTs and paramedics to respond to the fire house so we would be able to get the ambulance out quick."
While the district's volunteers are wonderful, Degen said, a large number of them work between the hours of 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. and aren't available to respond to emergencies. In a case when there aren't any volunteers available, a mutual aid call goes out to nearby fire departments to help out, which can delay response times.
"The district felt that we weren’t getting the crews needed to protect the fire district," Degen said. "Now we have an EMT to roll on every call that we have. ... Now we don’t have to call a mutual aid call if we don’t get a crew."Brookhaven's town board voted 6-1 on June 18 to give the green light to the installation of the tower by allowing the fire district to skip the process of going to the planning board for approval. The town board also waived $5,250 in site plan, environmental and other fees that would normally be associated with the installation of a monopole.
Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld, who represents Stony Brook as part of his first council district, was the only one to vote 'no' on that measure.
He said while he wants to be supportive of the Stony Brook Fire District, he thought the fire district should have limited the use of the new tower's communications capabilities only for the fire district's own use rather than allowing private companies to contract with the fire district for use of the tower. Fiore-Rosenfeld also said he thought the proposal should have gone through the planning board to give the residents a chance to voice their opinions on the matter.
Historically, the installation of communications towers on Long Island is a controversial topic. In March of 2012, the Kings Park school district struck down a proposal to add a cell tower on school grounds as a source of revenue for the district after resident outcry. And in 2010, the Port Jefferson Station community fought the installation of cell towers at Buttercup Dairy and a Terryville Fire Department station.
"Often we waive site plan approval for fire districts, but in a non-controversial situation," Fiore-Rosenfeld said. "I still think if they went to the planning board, people could have at least voiced their concerns. ... The town board shouldn't just be giving a wink and a nod to the Stony Brook Fire District."
But Degen called it a "win for the community" by keeping taxes down as much as possible and increasing rescue protection at the same time.
He said the paid EMT program came up as the solution when the fire chiefs asked for a solution that would yield better protection for the residents. He also said the department is badly in need of more volunteers, and the district has long faced the challenge of a lack of commercial tax base within its borders – especially with a major university to protect, and especially after a big chunk of commercial property came off the tax rolls when New York State annexed part of the Gyrodyne property through eminent domain in 2005.
"The members that are in the fire department now, they shoulder a tremendous burden because the department’s small," Degen said. "Part of what makes Stony Brook so beautiful is the fact that we don’t have the industrial sites that the other hamlets have. ... But the downside to it is the residential taxpayers shoulder the burden. We have to make sure we provide them very good fire protection and, in this regard, rescue protection."