Storm overwhelmed 1st responders

Storm overwhelmed 1st responders

Officers at Nassau County Fire Communications in Westbury didn’t know what to expect when Hurricane Sandy struck, but the incessant emergency calls that came in from all over the county exceeded anything they could have anticipated.

“It was the busiest night in my 18 years,” said Tim Placilla, assistant chief of in charge of fire communications for the unit know as Firecom.

A poster on one wall in the communications center – where all county fire emergency calls are received – carries a message British citizens took to heart in the days before and during the blitz in World War II: Keep Calm and Carry On.

On the day the storm struck, Firecom fielded 6,529 calls resulting in 2,182 alarms, Placilla said. 

Some 500 calls were received between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., the peak volume for the night.

The calls came from “all over the county,” Placillo said, but as the evening continued, most of them were coming from South Shore communities being devastated by the hurricane. 

The frustrating thing wasn’t the volume of calls, but the helpless feeling it gave the 18 Firecom staffers manning the phones and issuing calls to fire departments that weren’t capable of dealing with them, Placilla said.

“It was difficult for our staff, giving calls to fire departments and knowing they couldn’t respond,” Placilla said.

There was one call about people stranded on a roof in Point Lookout. Another one came about a cop stranded atop his car in Atlantic Beach. 

Placilla said one Firecom staff member, a captain in the Long Beach Fire Department, received a call about his own mother being stranded in her Long Beach house.

Normally, the staffing in the Firecom communications center consisted of five operators and one supervisor. But for the 72 hours during and after the storm, full crews of operators slept at Firecom and manned the phones.

“In past storms, we went for three or four hours, but this was different,” Placillo said.

On Oct. 30, the day after the storm hit land on Long Island, Firecom took 3,573 calls resulting in 1,150 alarms. The alarms dipped to 784 on the second day after Sandy struck. 

Firecom worked closely with the county Fire Marshal’s office during and after the storm.

Michael Uttaro, division supervisor in the county Fire Marshal’s Office, said preparations had been made before the storm, with seven swift water rescue units brought in from fire department upstate. 

But they had all been deployed in Great Neck and Port Washington area, where conditions were initially expected to be worse than on the South Shore, he said.

“It was a scramble to shift them from there to the South Shore,” said Uttaro, who worked closely with Firecom during the hurricane crisis.

Uttaro, a trustee in the Village of Williston Park, is an ex-chief of the Manhasset-Lakeville Fire Department. 

The calls were beyond the experience of anyone at Firecom, like the call that came in from the 150 members of the Island Park Fire Department who were stranded on the second floor of their headquarters.

Late in the evening, it was clear to Placilla that “pretty much everything south of Merrick Road” was inundated. It was time to issue Firecom’s version of an SOS.

“We tried to get mutual aid to help out,” Uttaro said.

The mutual-aid system had been developed after the events of Sept. 11 with the expectation that Long Island volunteer fire departments would aid the New York City Fire Department. 

Nassau County Firecom contacted its Suffolk County counterpart during the storm and succeeded in securing five engines and two ladder trucks from Suffolk fire departments. 

But when they contacted the New York City Fire Department, they found out about what was happening in Breezy Point and confronted a dead end.

“That’s where we knew we were on our own,” Uttaro said.

So Firecom officials and the Fire Marshal’s office started reaching out to their own contacts among the county volunteer departments and received immediate assistance for the South Shore from fire departments in East Williston, Great Neck, Manhasset Lakeville and Port Washington, all 8th Battalion county fire service units, as well as units from the 9th Battalion.                                                                                                                                                      

Placilla said the impact of the storm was complicated on the South Shore because so many residents chose to ride the storm out.

“Hurricane Irene was supposed to be bad and it passed us up. So a lot of people didn’t heed the [evacuation] warning,” Placilla said.

Uttaro said there still is no final number for the number of fires that occurred throughout the county during the storm. He said there were 15 fires in Massapequa that night, numerous fires in Freeport and an entire block reported to be ablaze in Long Beach.

“Definitely a night to remember,” Uttaro said.

In the month immediately after the hurricane, the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control took over Firecom. Fire department units were requested by county Chief Fire Marshal Thomas Tilley through the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control, which assists with implementing the state mutual aid plan.

They organized a mutual support system with fire-fighting vehicles from Rochester and Lake George among the first to arrive. Ultimately, 130 to 150 upstate fire department pitched in to help out at fire departments that still weren’t functional because equipment was ruined or firefighters displaced to other areas. 

“They took this assignment for 72 hours, then they’d check in and go home,” said Placilla, noting the upstate volunteers typically slept in the firehouses where they worked. 

By Thanksgiving, Firecom was back in command of its operation, coordinating emergency response through emergency operations center in each of the nine fire battalions in the county to ensure coverage of areas still unable to field their own fire services.

Firecom and the Fire Marshal’s office coordinated members of 8th Battalion units from several different fire departments covering Long Beach and Island Park with vehicles from one department. Using members of different departments for South Shore ensured that the participating department’s home areas would still be covered.   

And in the weeks after the hurricane, those firemen responded to freakish fires that occurred in houses and cars due to salt deposits from floods sparking electrical wiring.  

“It was probably the most stressful thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Uttaro said. “A lot of times, we’d get these calls and we’d never find out what happened.”

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