By Katie McFadden
There’s no doubt New York’s Bravest does an exemplary job when responding to calls, but in an emergency, seconds matter, especially for an isolated town like Broad Channel. And with Rockaway’s Engine 266 and Howard Beach’s Engine 331/ Ladder 173 both having to traverse bridges for Broad Channel’s emergencies, for the residents there, having their own volunteer fire department in town makes all the difference. This year, the Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department (BCVFD) is celebrating 118 years and they’ll be marking the occasion with the installation of their newest officers at the annual BCVFD Dinner on February 25.
Having been with the BCVFD for 25 years, Chief Ed Wilmarth knows a thing or two about the importance of having a group of firefighters that give their time as a labor of love for their community, and the impact the firehouse has had in the 118-year history of the Department. As Wilmarth explained, the BCVFD is the oldest volunteer fire department in Queens, and only the second oldest in New York City. With the FDNY serving the five boroughs, volunteer fire departments are few and far between, but for towns like Broad Channel, they fill a big need.
For Broad Channel, that need was realized in 1905 and was fulfilled when a bucket brigade got together on August 31, 1905. It was a time when Broad Channel was just starting to be developed, and homes popped up before the island’s bridges did. But with the island only being accessible by boat, the town realized they would need something in the event of a fire. That need grew when in 1907, in neighboring Howard Beach, a massive fire took out 18 buildings. Broad Channel realized they would need a little something more to avoid a similar disaster. So they began fundraising to help the bucket brigade purchase more formal equipment and the brigade became the Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department. They just needed a home.
In 1907, they landed at their current location at 15 Noel Road and construction began. On June 15, 1908, the firehouse, the same one the BCVFD uses today, was officially open. In the ‘50s, it was realized that Broad Channel needed even more rescue services. As Wilmarth explained, when Broad Channel finally did get bridges, they were drawbridges that were frequently opened as fuel was primarily transported by ship. Subjected to frequent delays with open bridges, plus summer traffic trying to get to the up-and-coming Rockaway peninsula, Broad Channel was still left vulnerable when it came to medical emergencies. In 1956, the BCVFD began its own ambulance service, and remains as one of the oldest volunteer ambulance services in New York City.
For 118 years, the BCVFD has been there for calls big and small. The BCVFD operates in a unique way compared to other volunteer fire departments. Since WWII, when the department also served as a Civil Defense Unit, the members do shift work, much like the FDNY, so there’s always a group at the firehouse for when a call comes in, and always someone there to make sure the equipment is in working order, so there are no last-minute surprises.
Ironically, today, fires aren’t the main emergency for the BCVFD. “It’s a quiet tour. I haven’t been to a big fire in months, which is a good thing, but not to apply your skills and get the experience you want,” Wilmarth said. Since Hurricane Sandy, Wilmarth says most of the new and renovated homes in Broad Channel are much safer than the homes of the past, many with built in sprinkler systems, meaning fires aren’t as prevalent. But even though fires are scarce, emergencies are not. “We have everyday calls. The majority are motor vehicle accidents. Cross Bay has become a very dangerous boulevard. It’s an epidemic with more speeders and reckless driving leading to more accidents. We’ve always had accidents, but we’ve become extremely good at responding because we have so much experience with that now,” Wilmarth said.
The BCVFD also faces calls that are unique to an area that while lacking fires, is surrounded by water. “We do a lot of water rescues during the season with drownings and boats in distress. A lot of those calls turn out not to be emergencies, but some do.
Other than that, it’s the other everyday calls. “Carbon monoxide alarms, malfunctions, sparking wires, and there will always by EMS calls,” Wilmarth said.
But there haven’t always been slow days for the BCVFD. The vollies have endured some of the biggest challenges in New York history. Wilmarth says the everyday calls tend to blend in, but BCVFD members have faced days they’ll never forget.
One early major emergency took place in March 1962, when an American Airlines flight crashed two minutes after takeoff, right into Jamaica Bay, on the east side of the Wildlife Refuge. “The vollies were first due. The American Legion was used as a temporary morgue. Ninety-five people died that day,” Wilmarth said.
Wilmarth himself was not around for that crash, but he’s seen more than enough plane crashes for a lifetime. One of the biggest incidents the BCVFD responded to was on 9/11 in 2001. Wilmarth, along with Bubba Kalisak, Bob Nussberger, and the late Fred Grey, answered the call that day, as FDNY requested all EMS units to respond after the first plane hit the World Trade Center in Manhattan. “They weren’t calling for fire departments. They didn’t know there would be another plane,” Wilmarth said. The BCVFD crew arrived shortly after the second plane hit, and they were only one of two volunteer companies operating at the WTC before the towers collapsed. Although their ambulance was totaled, the crew barely made it out alive. “We were no more than 200 feet from the lobby doors of tower two when it came down. All four of us made it out, but not without short and long-term injuries,” Wilmarth said.
Two months later, they were back at it when Flight 587 came crashing down in Rockaway. But they didn’t operate at the main crash site. As they approached the scene, the BCVFD couldn’t get close to the main crash, but that turned out to be a blessing for residents on Beach 128th Street. “ We got as close as we could and we started walking up to the scene and we see a house on 128th with flames all over the place. There was one FDNY truck on the block but just the driver was there, and he says, ‘Hey, there’s gonna be all those people on the crash site, but this whole block is gonna burn down. I’m hooked to a hydrant, but I have no guys here if you want to start pulling equipment.’” After discovering one of the plane’s engines landed on a home on the block, it was good timing that the BCVFD was there. They immediately got to work, working for several hours to battle a jet-fuel fueled fire that didn’t want to be tamed. “It was a hairy ordeal, but the fire went out and luckily no one was killed in that house,” Wilmarth said.
On the night of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the BCVFD was there, ready to serve the community as always. Luckily, fire wasn’t a factor that night as Broad Channel doesn’t have natural gas, but water presented some unique and scary challenges. The BCVFD members spent much of the day helping homeowners strap down their propane tanks that would be at risk of floating away. As the tide became higher and the street was no longer visible, the BCVFD wound up driving over something that broke the airline under the firetruck, disabling the truck on boulevard near 12th Road. Shortly after, a call came in about kids trapped on the top floor of a home that was suspected to be on fire. Without a truck, the crew grabbed whatever equipment they could and carried it to 6th Road, a block that regularly sees the worst flooding on the island. “During Sandy, the water reached nine feet on that block. We planned for all types of fires we could have been encountered that day but none of us were prepared for how deep the water was doing to get,” Wilmarth said. Fortunately, the suspected fire turned out to be exhaust from an oil burner, that put itself out in the water.
Whether it’s a big job or small, the BCVFD has shown its worth in the Broad Channel community. On February 25, at the BCVFD’s annual Installation Dinner,, some of the stand out firefighters and EMS volunteers will be honored, and the Department’s new officers will formally be installed. The 2023 Chiefs and Officers include Chief of Department George Conklin, Assistant Chief Michael Delgado, Deputy Chiefs Ed Wilmarth III, Andrew Knee and Richard Bogart, Chief Engineer Ed Wilmarth Jr., President Daniel McIntyre, Vice President Maurice Sartor, Treasurer Donna Bassetti, Financial Secretary Ed Wilmarth Jr., Recording Secretary Roxanne Seunarine, Sergeant at Arms Leonard Cannella, Engine Company Captain James McCabe, EMS Captain Joseph O’Hare Jr. and Safety Captain Maurice Sartor.
Local elected officials Councilwoman Joann Ariola, Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato and Senator Joe Addabbo will also be honored at the event for their support of the fire department, especially in their efforts to help the BCVFD get a brand-new firehouse in the future.
The Annual Officer’s Installation Dinner is a BCVFD tradition since 1920 and serves as one of the Department’s many fundraisers. The event on February 25,7 p.m., at the American Legion will include a buffet dinner, beer, wine, soda, dessert and coffee for $50 a ticket. If interested in attending, call Donna at 917-863-4984 or Dan at 347-678-5857 by Friday, February 17.
Can’t make the dinner but want to support the BCVFD? Donations for are always welcome for the organization that depends on donations and grants. “Seconds count and you can’t put a price on somebody’s life,” Wilmarth said. “If a $100 donation a year keeps our doors open and has the potential to save someone’s life, then it’s all worth it. The Vollies have been and can be the difference between life and death.”
Donations can be made in person at the firehouse on 15 Noel Road, or through Venmo: @BCVFD-15Noel
To learn about volunteering with the BCVFD, reach out to them on their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/BroadChannelVolunteers or fill out the form on the Volunteer Firemen’s Association website: vfanyc.org/broad-channel-volunteer-fire-department/