Sag Harbor Village Trustee Tom Gardella said two things used to keep him up at night when he was chief of the Sag Harbor Fire Department: the threat of a major fire breaking out in the heart of the Main Street commercial district or along the village’s bustling waterfront docks.
The first part of Mr. Gardella’s nightmare came true in December 2016 when an early morning fire caused heavy damage to the Sag Harbor Cinema and neighboring buildings.
Although the village has been spared a major disaster along its waterfront, it has seen a couple of close calls, including one in the summer of 2015 when Mr. Gardella was awakened in the middle of the night to respond to a call of an “extinguished fire” on a dock at Waterfront Marina.
When he arrived at the scene, Mr. Gardella said he was greeted by crew members from a yacht, who had discovered an electrical fire when they lost power and managed to put it out with fire extinguishers.
“There was about a 3-foot hole in the dock,” where the fire had burned, Mr. Gardella said, adding that a potential disaster that could have caused millions of dollars in damages and disrupted life on the busy waterfront during the height of the summer season had been averted.
The near misses have continued this summer, according to current Chief Kevin O’Brien Jr., who said fuel vapors were apparently responsible for an explosion that “blew the hatch covers off” a large motor boat as its captain was returning to the mooring field on August 26. The fire marshal told him the explosion consumed all the oxygen in the boat, effectively putting the fire out, Chief O’Brien said. He pointed to a second incident in August when his department received a report of a house fire in North Haven only to discover that it was a boat fire on Shelter Island.
Last week, Chief O’Brien, appearing before the Village Board, renewed a request that has been discussed on and off over the years: that the village buy the fire department a new firefighting boat that would not only be equipped with a pump that could produce 1,500 gallons of water a minute but would also be equipped as a floating ambulance.
“Over the last couple of years, the incidents on the waterfront and the waters of the bay have been increasing,” Chief O’Brien said. “The boats coming in here now — I don’t know if we can call them boats anymore — they are mega-yachts and they contain an incredible amount of fuel.”
Chief O’Brien pointed to a fire that destroyed about a dozen pleasure boats at the Patchogue Shores Marina in 2016 as an example of what could happen if a waterfront fire broke out on a dock that was out of range of land-based firefighters.
Harbormaster Bob Bori agreed that the waterfront posed a very real risk. “One of our biggest concerns is the lack of firefighting equipment for the much bigger boats,” he said, while adding that while most big yachts have fire suppression systems, they are only in the engine rooms and galleys. “We have millions and millions of dollars in boats in the harbor, and minimal, at best, fire suppression,” he said.
Although the fire department has two boats for its dive team — one moored at the village dock and the other at a Southampton Town dock in Noyac — Chief O’Brien said both are only equipped with small pumps that could provide at best 250 gallons of water per minute, nowhere near enough to put out a major blaze. Chief O’Brien added that a firefighting boat could also be a valuable tool to help extinguish boat fires in neighboring jurisdictions such as the one last summer on Shelter Island.
Other incidents such as an accident when a boat crashed into a bulkhead in North Haven in 2019 or the near drownings of several people near the Jordan Haerter Veterans Memorial Bridge in 2020 point to the need for ambulance capabilities as well, he said.
But the chief said a new firefighting boat would not come cheap. He estimated that a 32-foot boat manufactured by MetalCraft Marine, a Connecticut company, could cost as much as $500,000.
Despite the cost, board members agreed that it was an idea whose time has come.
“The case for this is made as far as I’m concerned,” said Mayor Jim Larocca, who has frequently cited the importance of the waterfront to the village economy. He said the village should add the cost of a fireboat to its capital planning.
Trustee Aidan Corish, who oversees grants for the village, agreed to look into alternative funding sources, and Mr. Gardella said the village should also explore the potential for donations from people who use the waterfront.
Although Chief O’Brien said he would love to see a boat acquired by next summer, he said he recognized that many steps had yet to be taken.
Mr. Gardella agreed. “First spec out what you need,” he said. “Tell me what it will cost and then we’ll take a look.”