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Miller Place Fire Department

The Port Jefferson EMS team has been on the front lines of the pandemic since its start. The team covers the Mount Sinai, Port Jeff and Belle Terre communities. Photo from Michael Buckley

By Iryna Shkurhan

The work of first responders is indispensable to communities across the country, but during an exhausting year like 2020, it was even more so. They are the first on the scene of emergencies, and time and again put their lives at risk when they respond to all types of 911 calls. With COVID-19, it meant untold hours of difficulty and hardship, but their work helped secure the safety of thousands.

So, this year gave EMTs, paramedics and firefighters the added challenge of directly responding to the invisible killer, COVID-19, as the pandemic took on communities across Long Island, all while still responding to their usual fires and non-COVID related medical emergencies. Leaders and service members, some paid but mostly volunteers, weathered changes such as increased safety precautions and the rising demand for their assistance. 

Wading River Fire Department, made up of about 80 volunteer members, responds to over 1,000 calls every year. When asked if one person stood out this year for their work, Chief Branden Heller agreed that their whole department demonstrated above and beyond work.

“We say the entire department because of all the events that transpired this year,” he said. “Members exposed themselves to more hazardous situations then they were normally used to. Overall, it’s been a very busy year.”

This year his crew of fire and EMS volunteers as well as two paid paramedics overcame a PPE shortage and also dealt with a rise of brush fires, on top of a surge of COVID cases, as emergency calls spiked up in the spring.

Daniel Dongvort, third assistant chief of Smithtown Fire Department, lauded Ann Shumacher, a lieutenant and volunteer EMT for her contributions this year, and throughout her 15-year tenure. She is a mother and full-time nurse, working two jobs, who still found time and energy to devote countless hours to the department whenever she could. 

“She was nonstop helping riding ambulances and helping the community all throughout 2020, but what she’s done over her tenure is probably more telling of her personality and her dedication,” Dongvort said. “Her overall enthusiasm, passion and willingness to come out for the next call, time and time again, is something that’s contagious, especially to the younger members.”

Miller Place EMS Capt. Rob Chmiel, far right, leads a team of volunteers during the department’s 10th annual Stuff a Bus event Nov. 20. Photo by Kyle Barr

Rocky Point Fire Department, with over 130 active members, serves the Rocky Point and Shoreham communities. Volunteer members in the department respond to thousands of EMS and fire calls every year. The department’s David Singer was named an EMS firefighter of the year by Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) in October. 

This isn’t the first time that Singer has been honored for his service to the community. 

As a member of the fire department for over 18 years, he has received his fire company’s Number One Responder Award and the Captain’s Award. 

Roselyn Coleman, an EMT for Riverhead Fire Department and volunteer for Miller Place Fire Department was nominated by Larry Fischer, fire commissioner and a retired EMS. “She’s one of our best,” Fischer said. Coleman has devoted her time to the community this year and showed consistent dedication by splitting her time between both departments.

Port Jefferson Volunteer Ambulance Corps provides emergency medical services and EMS protection to thousands of Long Islanders at all hours of the day. During the height of COVID, volunteers at Port Jeff EMS were working close to 180 hours in a two-week period. Many of the volunteers are students at Stony Brook University, who balance their EMT duties with their academic responsibilities. Nestor Kissoon and Adam Jones are two student-volunteer EMTs who were enrolled in SBU this year. 

“They did not shy away at all through the pandemic, and increased their hours to help meet the needs of the patients and the community,” said Virginia Ledford, administrative director of Port Jeff EMS. “They went beyond what was asked of them this year, and both always maintain a positive attitude.” 

Two full-time paramedics — Rob Stoessel, chief and executive director, and Mike Presta, deputy chief — worked tirelessly this year for their department. 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, they stayed at the building for what felt like weeks to make sure everyone was safe, prepared and that  the needs of the community were being met,” Ledford said. 

Miller Place EMS Capt. Rob Chmiel, far right, leads a team of volunteers during the department’s 10th annual Stuff a Bus event Nov. 20. Photo by Kyle Barr

John Quimby, chief of Mount Sinai Fire Department, was commended by his first assistant chief, Randy Nelson. Quimby’s first year as chief came at the same time as COVID, and such a time required making tough but necessary decisions to prioritize the safety of his team. This year was especially difficult for the department after a few members passed away.

“Ensuring that in everything that we do, the members’ safety and health has always been paramount in all the decisions that he’s made,” Nelson said of the chief. 

Quimby made the decision to halt volunteer training in April, which Nelson said was crucial to the department, especially to minimize the spread of COVID-19. The chief also made the decision to conduct all meetings virtually. 

“It makes me feel a lot better about the work that we do, and a lot more comfortable given the situation,” Nelson said. “It’s an uncomfortable situation to be in, but his decision-making through it all has certainly made it a bit easier to accept.” 

Stony Brook Fire Department Chief Pete Leonard was also named an EMS firefighter of the year, this time by county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) for her legislative district. Leonard has dedicated his time and energy to the fire department for over 35 years and has been a crucial asset to the Stony Brook community, this year especially.

In addition to his duties as chief, he also works as a full-time paramedic with Stony Brook University Hospital, where he is the first to provide care for critically ill patients being transported to hospitals. He continued to work throughout the pandemic as his department received a massive 10% in calls in the spring. 

Leonard described managing both responsibilities as “a delicate balancing act” where he worried about his health and safety on the job as a paramedic, and then came home worrying about the safety of his 75-member department.  

“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them,” he said. “And there isn’t a thing there they wouldn’t do for their community. Between our volunteer and paid staff, they have been exemplary and beyond words.”

He also described the cooperative relationship between all the fire departments on Long Island as they endured shortages of PPE. If one department was low on supplies, another department would chip in to offer theirs. They reached out to other departments to help out whenever necessary and, because of their cooperation, no department has had to go without PPE this year.

“It was a very cooperative relationship, and really showed the true spirit of what it is to work in this industry, and work together,” Leonard said. 

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The Wading River Fire Department building on North Country Road. Photo by Kyle Barr

Local fire departments are gearing up for their annual commissioner elections, and most districts in the local area, save Wading River, are looking at uncontested races.

Commissioners are unpaid elected board members who run the district, which is a connected but distinct entity from the fire department. The district is a taxing entity whose board is elected by the residents in the district. The commissioners determine yearly budgets, go out for grants and propose bonds to maintain equipment and personnel of both the district and department.

TBR News Media reached out to the local fire departments to talk to the commissioner candidates. Candidates talked about how COVID-19 has caused budgetary concerns, and along with current ongoing projects, how they try to recruit new members during a time of a pandemic.

Mount Sinai Fire Department. Photo by Kyle Barr

Mount Sinai Fire District

The Mount Sinai Fire District is holding an election Dec. 8 for a five-year commissioner seat. Incumbent Joseph Tacopina is running uncontested for a seat he’s held since 2002.

Tacopina said in a phone interview he has been with the Mount Sinai Fire Department for 35 years. Since he’s been commissioner, he said the board has worked to keep the percentage yearly tax increase below the New York State tax cap. Still, the district’s five-year plan does not include any big-ticket items, he said, and instead focuses on things like replacing the boiler in the main firehouse and other capital improvements.

“We’ve been streamlining processes through the department, but there are budgetary constraints based on COVID, so some of the projects we were looking to do are minimal in scope,” he said.

The pandemic has brought forth a host of new costs to the district, things that they previously wouldn’t have had to pay for. Tacopina said there were costs associated with sanitizing the firehouse and firefighter equipment, and they have had to spend much more on cleaning supplies and other PPE. At certain points, the district had to close the building to nonessential service for small time periods because of positive infections among volunteers or staff. It has also made recruitment for volunteer-starved departments like Mount Sinai that much harder.

“All these additional costs are not budgeted — we have to spend on sanitizing equipment so we can have our members respond without infecting everybody,” he said.

The election is set for Dec. 8  at the main firehouse located at 746 Mount Sinai-Coram Road from 6 to 9 p.m. The district is also asking residents to vote on a proposition that would make it so an active member can become a participant of the service award program at age 17, instead of 18. The annual cost of the program would increase from $265,200, or $2,160 per participant, to $288,400, or $2,060 per participant.

Tacopina said the district is attempting to allow younger people in their youth programs to become active members sooner to allow them earlier access to firefighter training. Currently young members must turn 18 before joining such training, which usually only allows them a small period for which to train and then work on trucks. Doing this would allow firefighter training for the summer before, so once they turn 18 they’re already ready to become full-fledged members.

“This way before they go to college, we have them for that summer as well,” the commissioner said.

Miller Place Fire Department. Photo by Kyle Barr

Miller Place Fire District

Miller Place has one commissioner term up for election. Incumbent commissioner Larry Fischer is seeking another five-year term starting Jan. 1 next year. 

Fischer, a 31-year member of the department, has served five terms on the board of fire commissioners. It’s been a long road, though the ongoing pandemic has led to a host of new challenges. 

He said the department has been mostly shut down for all non-call and emergency response activities. The department has had to greatly limit the number of training sessions, which along with limitations at fire school, has limited the availability of new recruits to get the training they need.

Still, the important thing, Fischer said, is that they’re still answering calls, which even before the pandemic, close to 70% of calls were for EMS. Like other districts, the pandemic has put an added cost on the district from having to purchase PPE and sanitizing equipment. Just this past week, the department hosted both rapid and the three-day COVID-19 tests for department members.

“We want to make sure our members are safe, especially our EMTs” he said. “I salute the EMTs who are really on the front lines of this.” 

Within the past year or so, the district updated their 20-year-old phone system. Though they had applied for a grant in 2019, the department ended up having to pay out of pocket, and that equipment was finally delivered at the beginning of this year.

Though the commissioner is hope for a return to something resembling normal next spring and summer following the release of a vaccine, that will not be the end to issues in the area. He shared his concern for the ongoing opioid crisis, which data has shown has only been accentuated because of the pandemic. He hopes that they can be allowed to go back in schools sometime in the near future to provide some training and awareness for students related to opioids.

The election is held at the main firehouse at 12 Miller Place Road Dec. 8 from 4 to 9 p.m.

Sound Beach Fire District headquarters at 152 Sound Beach Blvd. Photo from Google Maps

Sound Beach Fire District

The Sound Beach Fire District is hosting its election for a five-year commissioner seat. Incumbent Richard McKay is running for his seat unopposed.

McKay was appointed three years ago to finish the term of a previous commissioner who vacated his position. With several decades of experience as both a firefighter and EMT, he previously served as a commissioner for another department and said he originally did not expect to be elected again.

“I told them I’ll try it out for the year, but we did really well — all the commissioners play nicely in the sandbox — so now I’m running for a full term,” he said.

He said the main purpose of the district and commissioners is to maintain service without putting the onus on taxpayers. Last year Sound Beach residents voted to approve a $2.9 million bond to complete repairs and work at the main firehouse that hasn’t seen work in years. Most of the work is repairs and maintenance, McKay said. Repairs and fixes include a makeover of the parking lot, new epoxy floor finishing in the ambulance bays and apparatus room, sprinkler and fire alarm system replacements and window replacements on both floors. 

“The floors inside the firehouse are crumbling and in one part of the building a wall has a crack in it,” he said. “Almost every window leaks.” 

While the district has made budgets that have gone under the state tax cap for the past several years, this is the first time they will pierce the tax cap due to paying off the bond.

The other big issue the district faces is a lack of volunteers, McKay said. It’s especially hard nowadays to get people to dedicate the necessary amount of time for both training and to be on call.

The election is set for Dec. 8 at the firehouse located at 152 Sound Beach Blvd. from 2 to 9 p.m.

The Rocky Point Fire Department building in Shoreham. Photo by Kevin Redding

Rocky Point Fire District

Rocky Point is hosting its election Dec. 8 to elect a commissioner to a five-year term. Incumbent commissioner John Buchner is running unopposed.

Buchner did not respond to a request for an interview by press time.

The election is set for Dec. 8 at the district building at the Shoreham firehouse, located at 49 Route 25A, between 3 and 9 p.m.

The contested fire commissioner race in Wading River is set for a vote Dec. 8. Photo by Kyle Barr

Wading River Fire District

Wading River remains one of the few contested elections for commissioner this year. The seat is for a five-year term starting Jan. 1, 2021, and ending Dec. 31, 2025. 

Incumbent commissioner of 15 years Jim Meier is facing off against previous commissioner Tim Deveny.

Meier, a third-generation firefighter and 41-year member of the department, said he is running again to continue the work they are doing in upgrading equipment and boost declining membership. He also boasted there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in the department, meaning they have maintained a continuity of service throughout the pandemic.

“It’s all about the safety and the financial end,” he said. “We have a board that’s working together well right now.”

He said the district has purchased two ambulances and a new ladder truck in the last two years using capital funds without having to rely on other financial institutions. He also boasted about other grants the district has received in the past several years, including a $200,000 grant for radio systems in 2015. 

“With all that saving we can purchase new rigs to keep us going,” he said.

The station 2 firehouse on Hulse Landing Road has been closed for nearly two years now, saying the chief of department originally closed it for mold issues, among other building problems, and they “haven’t been able to reopen it.” That building is now being used for storage, save for a single emergency vehicle, while apparatus and equipment that was housed there has been moved to the main firehouse along North Country Road. Members that used to report to the second firehouse now respond to the main one.

The biggest issue, Meier said, is a lack of enough volunteers to man that station. He said despite additional travel time for some members to get to the station, the move has actually improved response time, as with a single alarm, instead of people responding to two separate houses, more people are available right next to the necessary equipment.

“Most people from that end [of Wading River] were getting older or moving out,” Meier said. “As bad as it is to have the station closed, it’s helped our response time.”

Deveny, a 23-year member and past commissioner from 2004 to 2014, said he is running again because of the issue with the station 2 firehouse, which he said was a major disruption in service to the eastern portion of the Wading River hamlet.

“Public safety — that’s what it’s all about,” Deveny said. “In this day and age when EMS calls are escalating, you take away from the people on the east end?”

He disagreed with the current board saying there are not enough volunteers to staff the station 2 building, saying that as he has worked there, they had 16 people who responded there and were “locked out” in February of last year. He said problems such as the mold issue have already been rectified, and some volunteers taking the trek to the main firehouse has meant a drive time of 10 minutes or more. He added people on his side of town “still don’t know they closed that station down.”

“I’m so angry I can eat glass,” he said. “You can’t put a price on human life.”

The candidate also criticized the district for piercing the state tax cap two years in a row, saying the district needs to work on its financial situation. He said the department did not require a ladder truck when other nearby departments could provide such equipment in a pinch, adding there were no large houses in Wading River that would require that apparatus.

The election is set for the main firehouse located at 1503 N. Country Road, Dec. 8 between 2 and 9 p.m.

Members of the Miller Place Fire Department and other community volunteers successfully packed a department bus full of food and other supplies for the St. Louis de Montfort church’s food pantry. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though students now aren’t meant to sit too close on the bus, the Miller Place Fire Department, for the 10th year in a row, is using every inch of space in a bus that bears its own logo.

Members of the Miller Place Fire Department and other community volunteers successfully packed a department bus full of food and other supplies for the St. Louis de Montfort church’s food pantry. Photo by Kyle Barr

MPFD’s 10th annual Stuff-a-Bus event managed to fill every seat in their red-and-white bus to the brim with food and other essential items donated by the community. All food was delivered to the St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church in Sound Beach for its food pantry.

Items were donated by fire department members and the surrounding community at the annual Stuff-a-Bus event held at the Miller Place Stop & Shop Nov. 20, from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. In addition to the donated items, Miller Place EMS Capt. Rob Chmiel, who headed the event, said they received nearly $1,000 in cash and gift card donations. The cash was used to purchase items the department was short of, and the gift cards were given directly to the food pantry staff, so they could use them to address their needs in the future.

Though normally the fire department holds its donation drive over two days, on the night of this year’s event, Chmiel said that they were receiving an incredible amount of donations, more than they usually do. They even received a car full of groceries by a volunteer at 4 p.m. By around 5:30 p.m., just two hours into the six-hour event, they had filled half the bus through several dozen residents donating a few boxes, cartons or jars at a time. By the end that same bus was packed to the seams. 

“We set out to make this the biggest year we possibly could, given the pandemic and everybody being stuck at home for most of the year,” Chmiel said. “We broke every record we possibly could.”

Elaine Bender, outreach director for St. Louis de Montfort Church, said the department did a “fabulous job” as they got way more than initially expected. The gift cards are also a big help as those are needed to help needy people purchase big ticket Thanksgiving items like turkeys.

The late afternoon-evening event was a large-scale operation, with a score of department volunteers bringing food to the bus and loading it up as music rang out over the crowded lot on the Friday before Thanksgiving. Other fire department volunteers stood by the doors to the supermarket asking local residents for donations.

“There’s a lot of hungry people right now,” volunteer Lori Aliano said. 

Since the pandemic’s start, Bender said the church has seen an increase in the overall number of clients they help. She added she expects there could be an increase in need should there be another statewide shutdown in the near future.

Chmiel thanked Marchand’s School of Dance for their yearly donations and Stop & Shop of Miller Place for allowing them to host the drive.

St. Louis de Montfort Church also hosts a drive for Christmas and will be accepting gift cards from any shop that sells toys supplies and/or clothing. Donations can be dropped off at the church located at 75 New York Ave. in Sound Beach.

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Shoreham resident and ex FDNY Tom LeDeoux placed the ceremonial wreath in the standing pool. Photo by Kyle Barr

For the 19th anniversary of 9/11, the Rocky Point Fire Department’s annual ceremony in Shoreham was limited in attendance to mostly firefighters and a few residents. Despite the abbreviated ceremonies, it was still a solemn memorial to the many who have lost their lives during the World Trade Center terror attack and all those who died after.

The evening included firefighters from the Wading River, Miller Place and Ridge Fire Departments as well as the RPFD. Speeches by head of the 9/11 Memorial Committee David Singer and Fire Chief Adam DeLumen touched on how both partisan politics and the COVID-19 pandemic have led to division, but most can remember how Americans came together in solidarity after the attacks 19 years ago today. It was also a time to remember the thousands who have died as a result of adverse health effects caused from being at the scene when the towers fell.

As of June, 2020, 79,001 respondents and 26,271 survivors were enrolled in the Centers for Disease Control’s World Trade Center Health Program, of those, 58,933 have one or more certified health conditions. Now over 18,100 members have certified 9/11 related cancers. Every year the numbers rise.

“As we get further and further away from that terrible event 19 years ago, we must continue ceremonies like this all around the world to make certain that present and future generations never forget the lives lost and continue to lose because of 9/11- related illness,” Singer said.

DeLumen, in his speech, also noted that this year is likely to be his last year as chief of the department.

“I remember exactly what I was doing that day of the attack and feeling the fear of the unknown, this year has much the same feeling,” the chief said. “I remember the day after 9/11 … we all became became one nation and came together no matter what, the same way these first respondents have always done.”

Paul Greenberg. Photo from Miller Place Fire District

One of the Miller Place Fire Department’s longest serving captains, Paul Greenberg, died Jan. 22. He was 78.

Greenberg was born July 4, 1941 in Manhattan to the late Sidney and Ida Greenberg. 

Paul Greenberg. Photo from Miller Place Fire District

Greenberg has been captain for 10 years, according to Commissioner Larry Fischer, and has been with Miller Place fire for around three decades. In addition to his service with the department, he also had a 37 year career with the Civil Service Department of Suffolk County, according to his obituary from O.B. Davis Funeral Home. In his free time, it was said he enjoyed building model boats.

Miller Place Fire Chief Rick Batchelder said he had known Greenberg since 2004, saying that he “has always been involved in department functions.” 

“He was always a great guy, and he always approached me with questions that needed answers,” the chief said.

He had especially been involved with the Miller Place Fire Police. Lieutenant Tom Van De Kieft served with him for several decades in the fire police section, adding that Greenberg was active as one of the ambulance drivers.

“He was good with all the members,” Van De Keift said. “He was very active as a leader — well liked.”

He was the husband of Tasha Greenberg (née Hewett), who is the secretary for the fire department; the father of Glenn (Anna) Greenberg and the late Diana Hewett-Ridgewell; the adoring grandfather of Michael Greenberg and his fiancée Tiana Rooney and Brian Greenberg; the brother of Marty (Jo Ann) Greenberg; the uncle of Mark Greenberg and great uncle of Tyler and Caleb Greenberg; and brother-in-law of Charles Hewett and his partner Charles Olbricht.

A memorial visitation for Greenberg will be held Sunday, Jan. 26 from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at O.B. Davis Funeral Homes, 1001 Route 25A, Miller Place, NY 11764.

 

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Miller Place Fire Department said they responded to a fire Nov. 26 at a home on Imperial Drive. Photo from MPFD
Miller Place Fire Department said they responded to a fire Nov. 26 at a home on Imperial Drive. Photo from MPFD

The Miller Place Fire Department reported battling a blaze on Imperial Drive Tuesday, Nov. 26.

The fire department reported to its Facebook they were alerted to the fire just before 2 p.m., and First Assistant Chief Joseph McCrain Sr. transmitted a working fire and requested additional resources to the scene.

Firefighters battled the flames that had crawled up the exterior wall to the rear of the home. the department said originated from the basement. Nobody was injured, they said. Interior members of the department located a family cat that was alive an unharmed inside the house.

Mutual aid came from Mount Sinai, Sound Beach, Rocky Point, Middle Island, Coram and Terryville fire departments. The trucks were returned to service around 3:30 p.m.

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Al Kopcienski has been a longtime member of the Miller Place Fire Department. File photo by Greg Catalano

Starting in 1959 and continuing to now, Al Kopcienski has spent 60 years in the Port Jefferson Rotary, and in a meeting Sept. 26 members described the man as the epitome of the rotary motto: “Service above self.”

Al Kopcienski was honored at the last rotary meeting for 60 years of service. Photo from Port Jefferson Rotary

Back in the day, joining the rotary wasn’t as simple as asking to join. Kopcienski said he remembered being “put through the ringer,” before being inducted, having been sponsored by his father-in-law Stuart Gracey. Meetings back then were hosted at Teddy’s Hotel, located at the corner of Main Street and East Broadway before later moving over to the Elks Lodge.

In decades past, the rotary raised much of its money through concerts and minstrel shows, though the biggest fundraiser for years was the annual event held on the grounds of Mather Hospital, which in the early years included a horse show. Then, rotary members said Kopcienski would spend hours collecting rocks from the horse show grounds in case a horse would get injured on one. He would be a part of those fundraising efforts, joining other members in building giant cement fire pits and helping in square dances and barbecues. 

Other than rotary fundraising, he has been particularly active in service projects to Camp PaQuaTuck, a summer camp for children with special needs, and the nonprofit marrow registry Gift of Life. He has built and maintained bus shelters in the Village of Port Jefferson, said Rotarian Ed DiNunzio, and has shopped for Christmas gifts for children who would not otherwise get them.

As an active member of the Miller Place Fire Department, he spent hours in 2012 on the east end of Long Island battling wildfires. His service in the face of disaster has traveled even further. He and his wife Honor have a home on the island of St. Martin in the Caribbean. In 2017 the category 5 Hurricane Irma followed by Hurricane Maria decimated the island. He has traveled there several times a year to aid in the cleanup and rebuilding.

“For the past thirty-seven years, I have consistently witnessed Al using his knowledge and expertise, and devoting his time and effort, to help the Club achieve its goals of service both to the local community, the larger community of Suffolk County and the world,” DiNunzio said.

The night of Sept. 11, 2019 was one of solemn remembrance. Community members, Boy Scouts and firefighters gathered in ceremony in both Shoreham and Sound Beach to show that fateful day would not be forgotten.

The event was attended by members of the Wading River, Rocky Point, Miller Place and Mount Sinai fire departments, as well as Boy Scout Troops 161 and 244, as well as several county, town and state officials.

Many of those younger people who gathered at the 9/11 Community Memorial site in Shoreham with their families were not even alive on that day in 2001. Yet those from the Rocky Point Fire Department and 9/11 Memorial Committee who spoke asked all to remember those several local residents and rescue workers who died 18 years ago. They also spoke of the hundreds who have died after the 9/11 attacks from health issues gained while at the site of the towers and in the weeks afterwards working in the rubble.

In Sound Beach, local residents gathered with the Sound Beach Fire Department gathered community members together in recognition of the historic date. The ceremony was led with opening remarks by Chief of Department Michael Rosasco and Chaplain McKay, who also led with closing prayers.

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Suffolk County Police Department officer James Behrens assists Luis Ramirez back to shore after his canoe capsized in Miller Place. Photo from SCPD

By Anthony Petriello

A Suffolk County Police Department officer’s quick thinking and decisive actions saved lives on the morning of July 11 in the Long Island Sound off the coast in Miller Place.

Trouble arose in the water at about 9:20 a.m. that morning, but luckily for two Suffolk County residents enjoying the day canoeing on the North Shore, officer James Behrens of SCPD’s 6th Precinct arrived on the scene quickly to assist when the vessel capsized.

“I’m just glad everyone came out of the situation okay,” Behrens said. 

Behrens responded to a 911 call citing men yelling for help in the water off of Landing Road in Miller Place. Thinking fast, he said he removed his bulletproof vest and gun belt and grabbed a life ring from his police cruiser. The original report said there were four victims in the water, according to the officer, so Behrens determined his life ring would not be sufficient for the rescue. Behrens said he saw a paddleboard in the yard at a nearby residence, the owner of which was not home, and commandeered it for the rescue. He then proceeded into the water for an approximately 600-foot swim out to the capsized canoe. 

Although the victims were wearing life preservers, the water that day was extremely choppy, and the men were having trouble staying above the waterline, according to Behrens. Shortly after he reached the men and aided them onto the paddleboard, Town of Brookhaven Bay Constable Steven Bennett arrived on a boat and assisted Behrens in pulling the first victim, Edgar Guirola-Hernandez, 33, of Brentwood, out of the water. 

Suffolk County Marine Bureau Officers Neil Stringer and Christopher Erickson arrived aboard Marine Delta and pulled the second man, Luis Ramirez, 44, of Centereach, as well as Behrens, out of the water. The victims were evaluated by the Miller Place Fire Department at the Cedar Beach Marina and refused further medical treatment, according to a press release from the SCPD. 

“He went above and beyond,” said SCPD Sgt. William Gibaldi, of Behrens’ efforts, who was at the scene shortly after the men were rescued. “Officer Behrens was very quick thinking, grabbing a paddleboard and doing what was necessary to save the men.”

Members of Miller Place Fire Department, EMS volunteers and community members come together at Stop & Shop in Miller Place to raise donations for those in need this holiday season. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Local families in need have a group of Miller Place volunteers, generous strangers and a big red bus to be thankful for this holiday season.

Cold, windy weather did nothing to stop Miller Place Fire Department members from gathering outside Stop & Shop at 385 Route 25A for five hours last weekend. In fact, the dozen volunteer EMS members, engine company officers and firefighters were all smiles as they collected 800 pounds of nonperishable items from passing shoppers, whose contributions were packed into a fire department bus and dropped off to St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church in Sound Beach the next morning.

Former Miller Place captain of EMS
Debi Rasweiler, on left, collects
donations. Photo by Kevin Redding

Canned food, condiments, paper towels and much more stock the shelves at the church’s food pantry for Miller Place, Sound Beach and Mount Sinai families struggling to make ends meet. The donations will help them have a proper Thanksgiving.

“The outpouring is always incredible — people here are just amazing,” said Debi Rasweiler, a former captain of EMS at the fire department and organizer of the 7th annual EMS Stuff-A-Bus Nov. 17, which ran from 3 to 8 p.m. “Last year we stuffed the bus from floor to ceiling, rear to front. It just grows every year.”

During the event, shoppers on their way into the supermarket were handed a list of items needed for the pantry — including pasta, dry cereal, canned vegetables, soaps and toothpaste — and asked to donate if possible. It didn’t take long before residents wheeled their carts over to the bus to chip in. Some dropped off one or two items while others outdid themselves, handing over full bags of groceries and cash.

“I just think we all have to give back,” said Shoreham resident Peggy Debus, who donated peanut butter, jelly and cereal. “When people stop giving back, the world gets very bad.”

John Barile from Mount Sinai, who handed over paper towels, said he takes any opportunity he can to help others who need it.

“If everybody gave something, we would never have any problems,” Barile said.

“If everybody gave something, we would never have any problems.”

John Barile

When asked what inspired her to donate multiple items, another shopper simply said, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Stephen Rasweiler, Debi’s husband and a lifelong volunteer firefighter, voiced his appreciation for the community as he held up a donated bag of yams and turkey stuffing.

“This is somebody’s Thanksgiving dinner just in one bag,” he said, beaming. “This time of year is very stressful, the economy’s tough for a lot of families and we know we’re helping a lot of people. It’s sad that this is needed but it’s been a great department and community effort.”

It was the Rasweiler’s daughter Jessica who initially brought Stuff-A-Bus to the community seven years ago after being involved in a similar event with her sorority at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. When she came home from college, and joined the fire department as an EMT, Rasweiler was determined to adopt the donate-and-transport event.

She got local businesses to sponsor it and went door-to-door from Setauket to Wading River to spread the word. As a full-time nurse at St. Catherine of Siena in Smithtown, she was unable to be at this year’s event, but said over the phone that the event’s continued success makes her heart smile.

“I wanted to do more for the community,” she said. “I knew we could do something greater than just wait for the whistle to blow for any kind of call that we get at the fire department. I just can’t believe it and it’s amazing the community has just latched onto it. It’s a very special event.”

For Bobby Chmiel, 2nd Lieutenant of EMS, the Stuff-A-Bus is a highlight every year.

St. Louis de Montfort’s outreach coordinator Jane
Guido shows off her new inventory as a result of the
annual Stuff-A-Bus event. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s not just residents helping people, it’s helping people they might know,” he said. “They could be your friends or neighbors. The community in Miller Place and Sound Beach will unite around a common cause. When it’s one of our own that needs help, especially during the holiday season, we’re there.”

On Nov. 18, the big red bus delivered its boxes upon boxes of items to the church. The various foods were stacked into the church’s pantries and will be given out to families, many of whom the church takes care of year-round.

“It’s a blessing and I can’t thank them enough,” said Jane Guido, St. Louis de Montfort’s outreach coordinator. “The families are very appreciative because a lot of them wouldn’t’ be able to put that kind of spread on their table for a holiday. It’s just too costly. People are so generous — we get plenty of stuff that holds us through the year — without their help, our pantry would be bare.”

After all the boxes were brought inside, Debi Rasweiler announced that on top of the food, one resident who asked to be anonymous donated $1,400 worth of Visa gift cards.

“It was a single parent who had been needy for a long time,” Rasweiler said.

An emotional Guido hugged her.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you everybody,” Guido said.