CHAPTER 9:  FIRE MANAGEMENT AND RESPONSIBILITIES


9.1 INTRODUCTION

The purpose of this chapter is to describe the duties of various agencies and their relationships with respect to a wildfire incident on Long Island including the Central Pine Barrens region.

9.2 FIRE DEPARTMENTS AND FIRE DISTRICTS

The Central Pine Barrens region falls with the jurisdictions of 17 fire districts in Suffolk County. However, there are 18 fire departments within that area that are responsible for responding to incidents. Sixteen of those departments are volunteer departments associated with a fire district, and two are career departments with specific jurisdictional response areas. The two career departments are Brookhaven National Laboratory Fire Rescue, which protects the 5,100 acres of the laboratory and the 106th Rescue Wing Fire Department of the Air National Guard, which protects the airbase in Westhampton Beach.

Fire districts are political subdivisions governed under Article 11 Subsections 170 through 189 of the Town Law of New York State. Each district is governed by a Board of Commissioners, which is made up of five members elected by the voting public. They have sole responsibility for administration of the fire district and for ensuring the health and safety of the public. Each district ensures its duties are met by the formation and maintenance of a volunteer fire department (or, in one, case by contracting with a neighboring fire district). Additionally, many of the departments discussed here provide both fire and ambulance services to their respective communities.

When activated for response to an incident, the fire chief or his designee (usually an assistant chief) has sole responsibility for extinguishing the fire as per Article 11 Subsection 176(a) of the Town Law of New York State. It is very clear in the law that the chief of the fire department in the fire district where the incident occurs is in charge. It is not clear, however, who has prime responsibility for a fire that crosses fire district boundaries. Best management practices and utilization of the Incident Command System (ICS) suggest that a unified command structure is best for accomplishing this task. The Wildfire Task Force recommends the use of the Suffolk County Incident Command System Plan for coordinating responsibilities for a fire that crosses fire district boundaries. In order to reduce confusion at the time of an incident, pre-planning should take place and high hazard/high probability areas be reviewed to ensure smooth transition and set up of an appropriate command structure.

The fire chief is the individual responsible, as per Town Law Section 176 (a), for ensuring extinguishing a fire on town, County, and State land (i.e., public lands), beside those owned by private entities. Best management practices and the use of ICS highly recommend meeting with the stakeholders of these lands before an incident occurs to ensure smooth transition to, and set up of, an appropriate command structure, as well as to delineate roles and responsibilities. For example, on State DEC property, the chief could incorporate the NYS DEC personnel into a unified command structure as additional resources and a direct source of knowledge specific to that site.

The fire district as per Town Law Section 170-189, has the responsibility of financially ensuring the capability of the fire department. In a fire event, the district personnel would most likely be used in the finance position of the ICS to ensure adequate record keeping and to administer the costs associated with the fire.

9.3 OUTSIDE AGENCIES

For most of the "routine" incidents associated with wildfire incidents in the Central Pine Barrens region, the town, county, state, and federal agencies will generally play a support role to the local fire departments. In fact, a great majority of the support roles will be played by town and county agencies as they are more inherently involved with the fire departments by way of County police, fire coordinators, town equipment, etc. The State, however, will play a role when their property is directly involved, or they are otherwise requested (e.g., special resources).

However, should the incident expand into the realm of the non-routine, where additional resources are required or further capabilities beyond those of the fire departments are required, then involvement by the state and/or federal level is more likely to occur. This is similar to the events which transpired in the 1995 wildfires in Suffolk County.

Just as when any other disaster takes place, the Chief Executive Officer of any municipality, be it Village Mayor, Town Supervisor, or County Executive, has the ability to declare a disaster under Article 2B of the Executive Law of New York State, within their jurisdiction. This enables resources and capabilities not normally available to the official, to be mobilized and deployed in the manner needed. It also enables other capabilities, such as mandatory evacuation by law enforcement, curfews, and enabling the state agencies to permit the use of resources without going through the formal non-emergency administrative procedures.

As the disaster escalates, the Governor activates the State Emergency Operations Center and declares a State of Emergency. The Governor contacts the Regional Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director in New York City and requests a presidential declaration.

FEMA may activate the Regional Operations Center and coordinates with the FEMA Director in Washington DC. The FEMA Director recommends that the U.S. President declare an emergency or major disaster. The authority for this action is provided in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, P.L. 93-288, as amended.

In case of a major wildfire, the USDA Forest Service is the primary federal agency that is tasked by FEMA through the Federal Response Plan umbrella. Their resources can be quickly mobilized to the disaster under the Incident Command System. Typical responding resources include Incident Management Teams, twenty person fire crews and possibly air support, as deemed appropriate by the Incident Commander.