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Christian Neubert

First responders swarm the scene on Feb. 22. Photo by Lynn Hallarman

By Lynn Hallarman

Christian Neubert, third assistant chief for the Port Jefferson Village Fire Department, was first on the scene, responding to the emergency dispatch called to the Port Jefferson fire station at 5:44 AM, Thursday, Feb. 22. 

At 5:46 AM, Neubert arrived at the corner of Thompson Street and East Main Street in the Village to find flames shooting in the air from the roof of a two-car garage on the residential property at 119 East Main Street. He quickly realized the worst was possible and told the dispatcher to alert neighboring fire departments that a full-structure fire was underway. 

When a report of a structure fire is called to the Port Jefferson Fire Department, the Terryville Fire Department is simultaneously alerted, putting in motion a quick response firefighting team as an extra layer of support for dangerous fire situations, Neubert explained the emergency response process in an interview with TBR. “This system is excellent and part of our automatic mutual aid program. And we do the same for Terryville,” he said. 

Belle Terre resident Mel Kravitz, on his early morning walk with his dog, could see the flames reaching into the sky from the Gap parking lot. 

“I heard explosions, then shortly after, I saw the fire trucks shooting down East Main,” Kravitz said. 

At 5:51 AM the Terryville Fire Department arrived on the scene. 

At 6:03 AM,  neighboring fire departments began to arrive to fight the blaze: Setauket Fire DepartmentMount Sinai Fire Department, and Stony Brook Fire Department responded, according to Neubert. The Miller Place Fire Department stood by at the Port Jefferson Fire Station in case an alarm sounded for another village fire. 

After confirming residents were safely outside, the crew assessed if the fire had extended into the house. The fire jumped from the garage and was eating its way through a low roof on the side of the house. Firefighters split efforts between containing the garage fire and extinguishing the rapidly spreading fire inside the home.

Several firefighters were fighting the blaze — some were on the house’s roof and inside the house searching for hot spots, while others drenched the destroyed garage with water. Cars parked inside the garage were now heaps of melted metal. Smoke plumed from burnt remnants, and radiant heat melted the siding off the house next door on Thompson Street. Firefighters doused a charred shed on the adjacent property on East Main. 

At 6:48 AM, the Port Jefferson Fire Department declared the fire incident under control. 

“The theory is the fire originated in a car in the garage,” Neubert said. But as a firefighter, you can’t know.” The incident will now be under investigation by the village Fire Marshall and the Suffolk County police, who make these determinations, he explained. 

No residents were hurt in the fire. A second-degree hand burn sent one firefighter to the emergency room at Stony Brook University Hospital. He was treated and released, according to Neubert. 

Fire Safety Tips

“The number one fire safety tactic is to install smoke detectors,” Neubert said.  

“And don’t assume that the fire department knows because your smoke alarm is going off; call 911 immediately,” he said. 

“Sleep with the doors closed at night. A closed door is imperative to stop fire spread,” he warns.

The Port Jefferson Fire Department has a designated fire alarm hotline: 631-473-3232. 

“We’re proud of having that capability. Residents can call the firehouse directly, saving critical minutes in response time.

Neubert reminds the public that every firefighter in the Port Jefferson fire department is a volunteer.

“Volunteer firefighters responded to this fire, then left, showered, and went to work.”

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Representatives from Port Jefferson fire department and EMS organizations speak before the civic. Photo by Lynn Hallarman

By Samantha Rutt

The Port Jefferson Civic Association hosted a meeting on Feb. 12 dedicated to first responders. 

“Our first responders have been there for us many a time, we have invited them here to help our residents learn what it takes to run such operations as well as learn what unique challenges they face,” civic association President Ana Hozyainova said.

The Port Jefferson Fire Department and EMS organizations have long been pillars of the Port Jefferson community, providing crucial emergency services to residents in times of need. However, recent challenges have highlighted the strain on these vital institutions, ranging from outdated facilities to a shortage of funding and volunteers.

One of the primary issues facing the Port Jefferson Fire Department and EMS is the state of their facilities. Many of the buildings housing these organizations are small and outdated, failing to meet the needs of modern emergency response. These facilities lack adequate space for equipment storage, training facilities and administrative offices, hindering the effectiveness of operations.

The most prominent issue facing the fire department is flooding. The location of the historic building is nestled in one of the lowest points of the town’s landscape allowing it to be highly susceptible to excess water. Third assistant fire chief, Christian Neubert, explained past complications the department faced during severe storms and excess rain. 

“One of the big problems we have is the firehouse floods,” Neubert said. “So, getting the firefighters to the fire department can be complicated. We have a flood protocol that we put in place after the 2019 flood, that when there is an alarm, certain apparatuses are allocated to certain sides of Maple Place. Some go up the hill and some go down toward the village.”

The issue of flooding exacerbates the challenges already faced. Flooding not only poses a threat to the safety of personnel but also endangers critical equipment and resources essential for emergency response efforts.

“That’s one of our starting points for mitigating those emergencies,” Neubert added. “There’s a lot of logistical complications when we deal with those types of floods.”

Like the fire department, the EMS organization is also experiencing a facility crisis. The organization runs an EMS training program with Stony Brook University students.

“We run an EMS training program, the EMS Academy, out of our facility,” Mike Presta, deputy director from Port Jefferson EMS explained. “We make our pre-health student EMTs and they go on to serve the community for the four or five or six years that they’re working toward becoming a health professional.”

Presta continued explaining the program in greater detail, “Almost five years ago, we actually developed a program where they live in the building. We have 15 college kids that live there, they get free room and board.” 

Though the efforts and intention of the EMS organization are pure, they face challenges running their organization alongside the student training program. Presta explained that due to the need for living quarters, the organization has set up trailers in the rear of the property to best suit the other operations of the organization. 

In addition to facility woes, the Port Jefferson Fire Department and EMS are grappling with a significant shortage of volunteers. Traditionally volunteer-based, these organizations rely on community members willing to dedicate their time and expertise to serve their neighbors. However, in recent years, recruitment efforts have struggled to attract new volunteers.

“We don’t get a lot of local community volunteers. We don’t really have many from the village, we don’t have any from Belle Terre, we don’t have any from Mount Sinai. So, our organization has grown to really rely on our Stony Brook University students,” Presta said.

Funding is also an issue facing these organizations as they rely heavily on property tax levies within the district and little elsewhere.

“Unlike some of our neighboring districts and partners, we don’t have as large a commercial tax base means that we don’t get to pull from a Walmart or a BJ’s or Target or Home Depot or a Lowe’s, we don’t have those large places,” Neubert said. “So, we have to be very mindful with our spending.”

Neubert continued explaining some of the ways the department has made efforts to save: “Recently, the fire district outsourced this faction of services to the supported firemen. So, our dispatchers now are Setauket dispatchers. That was a huge savings for the fire district, because they no longer had to pay full-time dispatchers out of the firehouse. And the reason that had happened was because insurance premiums have gone significantly up because of the recent floods.” 

In the face of these challenges, the dedication and commitment of the members of the Port Jefferson Fire Department and EMS remain unwavering. Despite the obstacles they face, these individuals continue to serve our community, ensuring the safety and well-being of all residents. As a community, it is incumbent upon us to support and strengthen these essential organizations as they work tirelessly to keep Port Jefferson safe.

The meeting also served as the first opportunity to register interest in running for officer positions for the civic association. Offices open for elections are, president, vice president, treasurer, recording secretary and corresponding secretary. Only members in good standing are eligible to run and the deadline to submit interest is March 11, also the date of the next association meeting. 

Edna Louise Spear Elementary School head custodian Paul Scalcione visited first graders. Photo courtesy PJSD

First graders in Laura Kelly’s and Paige Lohmann’s class at Edna Louise Spear Elementary School have been learning all about communities in their social studies unit.

Students were exposed to different texts and activities to help build on the concepts of community roles and responsibilities. They were introduced to maps and discussed important places that make up their community. 

Part of the unit included first graders interviewing community members in and around the school. Students could ask questions of the classroom visitors to help foster their learning through direct interaction. 

Visitors included music teacher and local firefighter Christian Neubert, school nurse Joan Tucci, building head custodian Paul Scalcione and Superintendent of Schools Jessica Schmettan. They learned how each member contributes to their community and the role that each plays.  

“It was an excellent learning experience for them,” Lohmann said.

The Village of Port Jefferson reignited a time-honored tradition last weekend during its 26th annual Charles Dickens Festival.

Hundreds of community members, visitors, business groups and local organizations participated in the festivities from Friday, Dec. 2, to Sunday, Dec. 4. 

The show went on despite hard rains and gusting winds throughout the morning and early afternoon Saturday. Mayor Margot Garant, decked out in traditional Dickensian garb, commented on the turnout in the face of these conditions. 

“To me, it just shows how important this festival is to not just this community but kids coming from St. James and beyond who are coming to see Santa,” she said. “It’s just magic, and rain or shine we’re going to be doing Dickens.”

Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden concurred with this positive outlook, regarding the festival as another means for community-building. “It’s heartwarming to see everybody still supporting this festival,” she said. 

Trustee Stan Loucks commented on the uniqueness of the opportunities afforded through the festival and the steady growth of the events over its nearly three decades in existence.

“It’s grown every single year, and it’s just the most festive time of the year,” he said, adding, “I love the whole atmosphere, the village center. It’s a very special place, and I look forward to this every year.”

The program across all three days was loaded with special events featuring the various elements that formulate this distinct village’s character. The heart of Port Jeff was on full display, from its downtown business sector to its local history, public institutions and more.

At the Bayles Boat Shop, local shipbuilders showcased their ongoing work to construct a 25-foot whaleboat honoring the village’s Revolutionary War heritage. 

John Janicek, treasurer of the boat shop’s nonprofit arm, the Long Island Seaport and Eco Center, detailed how the whaleboat ties together various threads of Port Jeff’s historical roots.

“It not only ties in the historical aspect that Caleb Brewster performed here during the Revolutionary War and [the role] Port Jefferson played, but it also ties in our shipbuilding aspect, too,” Janicek said. “We’re getting a lot of support from the village on this. They see this as something the whole village can get their arms around and embrace, similar to the Dickens Festival.”

Over at the Drowned Meadow Cottage on the corner of West Broadway and Barnum, local historians greeted visitors with guided tours detailing Port Jefferson’s strategic position during the Revolutionary War. They shared stories of local patriots whose involvement in the Culper Spy Ring helped advance the cause of American independence.

Village historian Chris Ryon discussed how the Dickens Festival offers a platform to promote local history to residents and visitors alike.

“We take the people from Dickens and tell them how Port Jefferson was involved in the Culper Spy Ring,” he said. “It’s another group of people that we can bring in.”

Mark Sternberg, Culper Spy Ring historian at the Drowned Meadow Cottage, offered a unique take on Dickens. He remarked upon the intersection of the Dickensian and Revolutionary periods and how people today can relive tradition and rehear the lore of the past.

He said, referring to the American spies, “A lot of these people survived into the 1800s, and the stories of the American Revolution were told during the 1800s. For us to tell stories about the American Revolution as part of the Dickens Festival, it’s what they would have done.”

The historian added, “It’s keeping with the tradition of telling a story about the founding of our nation, even in later periods. Now Charles Dickens may not have talked about it because he was British, but here in America during the Victorian era, we would have.”

Along with stories of the past, the village exhibited the musical talents of local students. At the Port Jefferson Free Library, the Edna Louise Spear Elementary School chamber orchestra delivered moving string performances, filling the library with festive tunes.

Their music teacher, Christian Neubert, summarized this Dickens custom. “For a number of years now, we’ve been coming to perform here at the library during the Dickens Festival,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to get our students out for a performance and to get the community involved with our music program.”

Jessica Schmettan, superintendent of schools for Port Jefferson School District, was among the dozens of audience members at the library. She expressed pride in seeing the students perform before their fellow community members.

“It’s just amazing that our students can be performing in the village in which they live,” she said, adding that the festival “gives them a different avenue to perform in, not just the auditorium or the classroom but in front of a real audience.”

At Suffolk Lodge No. 60 on Main Street, the oldest Masonic lodge on Long Island, brothers treated guests to magic shows and a dance festival. Downstairs, they served freshly baked cookies and hot chocolate.

Chris Connolly, master of the lodge, said the lodge dates back to the late 18th century. He expressed delight at seeing this historic organization maintain an active community presence through Dickens.

“Being a part of the community is a big part of who we are and helping others,” Connolly said.

Jason Intardonato, senior deacon of Suffolk Lodge No. 60, discussed Dickens as a means of strengthening local connections and a time for selflessness.

“The Dickens Festival provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to interact with our neighbors here and with the community in Port Jefferson and to allow them into our space, entertain them for a while during the holidays, and give back,” he said.

Farther along Main, Jeffrey Sanzel’s annual production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at Theatre Three is an active reminder of the historical background to the Dickens Festival.

The festival also provided a platform for some to communicate their message on a larger stage. For the second month in a row, protesters from the farmworkers union Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW gathered outside the Pindar wine shop in yet another call of action to negotiate a contract. The dispute is part of more than a year of negotiations between the union and Pindar Vineyards, the wine store’s parent company. 

John Durso, president of Local 338, joined the picketers on Main Street during the festival. “We knew that today was the Dickens Festival,” he said. “We knew that there would be a lot more people around, so we decided to … bring attention to the fact that these workers, like everybody else, are entitled to the same dignity and respect that all workers should have.”

Coordinating the annual festival is a monumental task for the village and the various stakeholders involved in its planning. Kevin Wood, the village’s director of economic development, parking administrator and communications committee head, thanked the sponsors who supported the festival and commented on the event’s success despite the inclement weather conditions.

“Because this has been [going on for] 26 years, people understand that this is one of the most unique events on Long Island, so they’re going to fight the rain to be here,” Wood said. “To support the production and the infrastructure, there are so many volunteers but there are also so many people staffing to make it work.”

Snaden concluded by offering how the Dickens Festival advances some of the village’s highest aims. She said the community uncovers its sense of place through an event such as this.

“It really goes to the sense of community that we all have,” she said. “All the work that goes into this festival and how everybody comes together, it’s a beautiful thing to see.”

By Julianne Mosher

Children watched and cheered in awe as their principal, Tom Meehan, climbed to the top of a fire ladder parked in the back lot of Edna Louise Spear Elementary Friday, Oct. 4. He flew above the kids, dressed in his volunteer firefighter uniform, to help teach his students about fire safety and prevention. 

Along with Meehan, several members from the Port Jefferson Fire Department came to the school with two large fire trucks to show kids that firefighters aren’t scary and, instead, they’re here to help.

“We don’t want children to be afraid of the fire department,” Meehan said, “We’re here today to get them more comfortable with us in case there’s an emergency.”

Meehan added that the volunteer firefighters have been visiting the school for about nine years and have unfortunately visited the homes of students in the past. The event on Oct. 4 helped get the kids excited to see the department, including five-year-old Logan Devine who excitedly compared them to superheroes. 

“Firefighters save persons from fire,” the kindergartner said, “They help us like Spider-Man!”

During the fire prevention event, those in uniform let the kids high-five them, let them play with the fire hose and question them on what they know about fire safety. The kids were reminded on what to do in case there is trouble, like dialing 911.

“It’s important to show the community that we’re here to help,” Christian Neubert, a music teacher with the school and volunteer fireman, said. “We take pride in it and take it seriously.”

Neubert added that the Port Jeff Fire Department is made out of 100 volunteers, many who are lifelong community members. Men and women from all types of career paths are on call, ready to help out, and new members are always welcomed.