Fire Departments concerned over access to scenes

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10/20/2010 3:27 PM |

In late September, when a fire ripped through a four-car garage on Point Pleasant Road, a narrow private road in Mattituck, fire trucks could barely get down the overgrown 1,300-foot roadway to quench the blaze.
Firefighters are now using the lessons of that fire to tell people about the importance of adequate emergency access to houses that are on private roads and have long driveways.
Mattituck Second Assistant Fire Chief Vinnie Tirelli, a retired police officer, told the Southold Town Board Tuesday that he’s been concerned about access to those properties since he was on patrol with the police force.
Town code requires driveways to be 15 feet wide and cleared of branches to a height of 15 feet to permit emergency access. Mr. Tirelli said Point Pleasant Road was between eight and 10 feet wide.
Two cars were destroyed in that blaze, as the fire department laid down well over 1,000 feet of line from the nearest hydrant on Westphalia Avenue and tried to bring its trucks up to the house through encroaching trees.
“Our ladder truck got stuck halfway down. We’re lucky it was only a garage,” Mr. Tirelli said. “Houses are replaceable, but we may lose somebody someday. If you lose a life, it’s a tragedy. If we don’t get in there, it compounds the tragedy.”
He added that time is of the essence because a fire doubles in size every minute.
“I have chain saws on the trucks. We’ll get in,” he said. “Homeowners may not be happy but I don’t care. Delays are deadly. My big concern is we’re going to lose somebody because of a delay.”
Mr. Tirelli said horseshoe-shaped driveways with large trees nearby also pose a logistical hazard for firefighters because the space available for trucks to make turns may be severely restricted.
He emphasized the importance of making the public aware of the danger posed by roads and driveways with restricted access. He also said a tragedy might be the only thing that will drive the point home, like the recent fire in an Oklahoma neighborhood where people purchased $75 annual subscriptions for fire protection, instead of paying through a tax district. He noted that a homeowner whose house caught fire hadn’t bought a subscription so firefighters said there was nothing they could do to help.
“It sounded kind of cold-hearted, but you can bet everyone in that district paid their bill,” Mr. Tirelli said, adding that he feared people here needed the same kind of wake-up call to pay attention to the access issue.
On Tuesday, town attorney Martin Finnegan expressed concern that some substandard roads and driveways may have been built before zoning and would not need to be updated, while Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the town cannot locate the owners of record for many private roads, and so has no one they can ask to bring the roads up to code.
Councilman Chris Talbot added that it would be impossible for the town’s one code enforcement officer to find the time to take an inventory of all the roads and driveways that aren’t up to code.
Town Board members suggested that the fire districts throughout town compile lists of problem areas, and the town will consider how to ask residents to make their houses fully accessible.
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