The Stony Brook Fire Department carries a load too heavy for its size and funding, its fire district commissioners say, providing coverage for much of Stony Brook University's 1,032-acre campus and other areas which place a burden on the department's volunteers without producing the tax revenue that the district relies on.
"You're trying to do a job with one hand tied behind your back," said commissioner Walter Hazlitt, who has been a member of the department for more than 50 years.
While the coverage area contains a number of tax-exempt institutions, the university is by far the largest burden, said fire district commissioner and chairman Paul Degen. The Stony Brook Fire District is responsible for most of the school's dorms and academic buildings, while the hospital on the campus' eastern side is covered by the Setauket Fire Department. This means that 48 percent of Stony Brook Fire District's assessed tax value is unavailable as revenue, and that disparity is only growing, he said.
"The more they build, the more we have to protect," said Degen, a 28-year member of the fire department.
Degen cited the ongoing construction on 245.5 acres of property which the university acquired in 2005 under New York State's eminent domain law. The Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology and the Advanced Energy Resource and Technology Center now sit on the land, which used to belong to a private company, . The result is a loss of tax revenue to the fire district that used to be paid by that company, while the need for coverage of that area increases with every building that goes up there.
Degen said his department, which is made up of approximately 85 volunteers – some of them Stony Brook students and faculty – is committed to keeping the campus community safe, but is strained by requirements pertaining to the area it is mandated to protect.
"We had to retrofit our fire trucks with apartment packs and implement other safety equipment specifically for fire protection at the university. This has exceeded $50,000," Degen said.
He noted the costs of other regulations set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), saying the NFPA has "really stepped up their codes" – they have really added costs to the fire district.
No first response trucks are to be older than 15 years, with no second response trucks more than 25 years old allowed, Degen said. Tires for the trucks must be replaced, no matter their condition, every seven years at costs as high as $800 per tire. The turnout gear worn by the firefighters themselves must be replaced every 10 years no matter the condition.
Such regulations place an added strain on a fire district already using as many cost-cutting measures as it can come up with, according to a district employee. The employee described a lack of amenities at Stony Brook's fire houses which many other fire departments enjoy, such as elevators, decked-out recreation rooms, state-of-the-art equipment and modern furnishings, as well as a general lack of space. Cleaning supplies are stored in one of two shower stalls in the building's spotless bathrooms, and the department's four chiefs share a single office. Here, the employee said, volunteers focus on preserving what they have.
"We don't have it; we're not looking for it. We're just looking to survive," the employee said.
Degen said the district is not spending money on perks, but rather it is trying to improve fire and rescue protection for the taxpayers and residents while keeping costs in check. The district would like to see more financial support from the university and not pass their fire protection costs to the shoulders of the taxpayers, he said.
"We don't have our hand out. We're not asking for much," he said. "We need help on a higher level. We'd love for the university to step up and help out – pay PILOT payments."
A PILOT payment, or payment in lieu of taxes, is compensation made to a local government in place of tax revenue that is lost due to the nature of ownership of a piece of property.
Stony Brook University's spokesperson, Lauren Sheprow, said she is not familiar with any proposals of PILOT payments, and provided a copy of a 1990 state comptroller's legal opinion concerning imposition of "special taxes" by towns on behalf of fire districts. The opinion states that this power rests solely with the state legislature.
Sheprow said the university wants to decrease its impact on Stony Brook's volunteer firefighters, and has taken measures that have produced results.
"The university is working very hard to address the unnecessary calls that don't require an on-scene response," she said.
Many of the alarms on campus, particularly in the dormitories, are situations which are not life-threatening, such as overcooked popcorn or students smoking in their rooms setting off smoke detectors, Degen said.
Sheprow said that since a round-the-clock fire marshal program was instituted in 2007, incidents requiring an on-scene response have dropped dramatically. The program allows the fire marshal to alert the department when such a response is necessary. Sheprow said that out of 396 automatic calls to the Stony Brook Fire Department in 2010, 27 required on-scene responses. Between January and September of this year there were 150 alarms, of which 14 engendered an on-scene response, she said.
Sheprow said the university has offered to assist with a recruitment campaign on campus for more volunteers, and said she'd like to look at other public university models to see how they deal with the issue.
She said that the hotel being built on campus is not a university entity and will contribute to the tax base.
Ron DiBiase, president of the Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook and a former Setauket Fire District commissioner, said the issue is not one that is easily resolved, and needs to be addressed on a state level.
"Many fire districts are upset about large institutions smack in the middle of their districts, and that they have to provide protection for that," he said. "The fire district has the sole purpose to provide protection for the community. The community has the responsibility to decide the boundaries for that."
DiBiase said the law allows the university to rely on local emergency services and does not permit it to make payments to the fire department. He said there needs to be a discussion among all parties involved as well as state lawmakers.
"Let's talk about it. It's creating hard feelings on both sides," he said, expressing concern over the department's ability to provide proper coverage for the people living and working on the campus.
"I think they're at a tipping point," DiBiase said. "They're getting to a point now where I believe it will become a problem."