By Matthew Troy, Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department Captain
Cruise over the North Channel Bridge in southern Queens and you’ll find yourself suddenly wondering if you’re still in New York City. To the west across Jamaica Bay is the familiar sight of skyscrapers reaching above the horizon, but it lies merely as a backdrop to marshy woodland, stilt-supported coastal homes and the quaint “little” community of about 10,000, Broad Channel.
Once a fishing town that also served as a city-dweller’s coastal escape, this town feels like a living relic of New York City’s past, including the volunteer fire department that has proudly served continuously since 1905.
The Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department, first established as a bucket brigade to mitigate on-island fire suppression needs, epitomizes the spirit of community service and volunteerism in a city that is typically associated with one of the most celebrated municipal fire departments in the world.
However, despite the FDNY’s growth throughout the 20th century, the Broad Channel “Vollies” remained a valuable resource to this community once separated from the mainland by draw bridges. There even was a time the FDNY housed a limited staffed engine in the Broad Channel VFD firehouse during the busy summer months when local populations swelled with the heat in search of sunny beaches.
Today the Broad Channel Vollies, as they’re colloquially called around town, operate two engines and two BLS ambulances in concert with the FDNY, which also covers the island. Seasonal beach crowds still swell during summer months as many head south to the Rockaways, leaving an opportunity for the local Vollies to establish emergency first-responder operations well before the nearest city apparatus weaves its way through traffic.
The BLS ambulances also provide an opportunity for the local community to have familiar faces arrive during medical emergencies and assist in freeing up ALS ambulances sent by the city when the call doesn’t require paramedic intervention. On average, the department has responded to approximately 300 calls per year for the last decade.
Despite the low call volume, the Broad Channel volunteers have had their fair share of city-scale response. From massive brush fires in the adjacent wildlife refuge on the island and sending an ambulance to the World Trade Center on September 11th to being one of the first-arriving agencies when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in the Rockaway peninsula, this little department strives to be prepared for urban and wildland emergencies of all varieties.
Most recently, the Broad Channel Vollies were a crucial part of the citywide emergency response during Superstorm Sandy when nearly the entire island of Broad Channel was overcome by surging floodwaters.
Throughout the night, volunteers worked to save a number of stranded residents, right up until their apparatus were overcome by the ocean tides. The next morning, the Vollies awoke to find Engine 209 in a most peculiar form; rusted from the waterline down and completely burnt out above (a result of an electrical fire started from a wiring short). The Vollies were the only agency on the island that night protecting the island.
Following the storm, the Vollies continued to support the community as a central distribution point for resources just as the department becamethe recipient of an outpouring of brotherhood support from departments across the nation.
The department today continues to operate with apparatus donated from Sleepy Hollow (New York), Great Neck (New York), Sag Harbor (NewYork), and Chanska (Minnesota). Unfortunately, like any volunteer agency, the department has struggled to maintain an active roster, particularly following the storm when many members moved away from the island.
The legacy continues, however, with recent renovations to the firehouse reflecting a hopeful future of continued service. It seems as if everyone in this town has been a part of the Broad Channel Vollies in one way or another, or at least could name two relatives who gave of their time to serve their community.
Perhaps more surprising is the fact that the Broad Channel VFD is just one of seven volunteer departments that belong to the New York City Volunteer Fireman’s Association made up of agencies across Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx that are committed to community service just as much now as they were over 100 years ago.
So, next time you’re grabbing a slice of pizza in southern Queens, don’t be surprised if you see some blue lights flashing by. The volunteer culture is still alive in NYC.