Protecting the Belmont Stakes

"And down the stretch they come!" The most famous words in horse racing are never more exciting than during a home-stretch run at Belmont Park with a Triple Crown at stake.

Belmont Park, host track for the third leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, is in Elmont, NY. The Long Island attraction has been protected by the Elmont Fire Department since its opening day on May 4, 1905. In fact, the first fire company in Elmont can trace its roots to the generosity of August Belmont Jr., son of the German-born banker August Belmont Sr., for whom the track and race are named.

In 1902, August Jr. bought 650 acres of land on the Nassau County-Queens County border to build at the time the fanciest race track in the nation. Belmont Hook and Ladder Company 1 was organized in 1905 with the help and funding of August Jr. With his race track about to open, he saw a need to help with the funding of a fire company that was just starting out in the growing town, which before had been mostly farmland. His donation of $2,500 helped the company purchase a horse-drawn truck equipped with ladders and buckets. The company spent $1,300 on the land and construction of the firehouse on Elmont Road that members still call home to this day.

Today, the Elmont Fire Department is an all-volunteer organization made up of seven companies and one EMS squad of non-firefighting personnel, responding from seven stations in a 5.73-square-mile district with a population of 47,000. The front-line apparatus consist of four 2,000-gpm engines, one 100-foot ladder tower (Belmont Hook & Ladder Company 1), one 100-foot tiller-drawn aerial, one heavy rescue and two advanced life support (ALS) ambulances. The department is led by Chief of Department Pedro Vera and three assistant chiefs. Each company has a captain and two lieutenants. The fire district also employs a part-time inspector.

In 2008, the department responded to 817 ambulance requests and 1,131 fire calls, of which 16 were working fires. There were 68 calls to the Belmont Park property, including three all-hands fires. Responses to the track during the years have included the smell-of-smoke calls, water-flow alarms in the winter due to broken pipes, vehicle and hay truck fires, and many large-scale, multi-alarm fires. In 1917, fire destroyed the grandstand and clubhouse, and severely damaged the jockeys' quarters and Long Island Rail Road station. In 1944, a fire killed 14 horses, including the third-place finisher of that year's Kentucky Derby. More recently, on Jan. 19, 1986, a fire in Barn 48 made worldwide news when 45 horses were killed; on June 22, 1999, a fire in Barn 8 killed three horses.

Belmont Park Today

The present 430-acre complex consists of a four-story grandstand/clubhouse with an underground tunnel area containing many loading docks. This grandstand was opened in May 1968 after the old grandstand was deemed unsafe following the 1962 season. The seating capacity is 33,000 with the total occupancy of the grandstand over 100,000. It is a steel-frame/masonry structure with an automatic wet-sprinkler system throughout. Various locations also use halon and Ansul systems. The barn area consists of dozens of old wood-frame barns, some over 80 years old, with stall capacity for 2,100 horses, as well as cottages used as living quarters for grooms and exercise riders.

The track employs its own electricians, steamfitters and landscape personnel. For this reason, there are many maintenance and machine shop areas and a greenhouse. Special hazards at these locations include storage of automotive fluids, pesticides, industrial cleaning solutions, oxygen and acetylene cylinders, and the storage and dispensing of gasoline and diesel fuels. These structures all have wet-sprinkler systems and are fueled with natural gas. The Long Island Rail Road has a seasonal station in the northwest parking lot that runs off the main line. During the off season, various passenger, freight and maintenance rail cars are stored on these track spurs.

Weekday attendance is between 2,500 and 3,500, while weekends draw crowds of 8,000 to 12,000. There is an alarm box system throughout the grandstand and barn area that is monitored by the security office of the race track. Any pull boxes are called into Nassau County Fire Communications (Firecom) for dispatch. All box alarms and any other telephone alarm for a structure fire are general alarms for the fire department 24/7. Park security sends an officer to meet fire units at every alarm at the race track. Fire apparatus carry keys to open entrance gates after hours and to the grandstand area.

Belmont Stakes Day

The running of the Belmont Stakes presents an annual challenge for the department each June. Gates open to the public at 8:15 A.M. and the crowds for the day vary from a low of 40,797 in 1996 to a record high of 120,139 in 2004. It is especially high when there is the possibility of a Triple Crown winner. This year was hard to predict, as a unique situation arose. It could have been the first time in the history of the race that a jockey would have won all three races, but on two different horses (it did not happen, though). Belmont officials put attendance for the 2009 Belmont Stakes at 52,861, a 44% decrease from 2008's crowd of 94,476.

In preparation for race day, meetings take place with the fire department chiefs and the New York Racing Authority (NYRA), along with all other agencies involved. An outline of the day's events and a brief overview of each agency's role are discussed, as well as any other out-of-the-ordinary situations that may arise.

A fire department response plan for the day has been in effect for years and is tweaked as needed from year to year. The command post and staging area for any incoming resources was established at Engine Company 2's quarters just outside of Entrance Gate 7 to the race track on Plainfield Avenue. Engine 1 was relocated to the station for the day, as well as one of the department's ALS ambulances. These units were dedicated for race track response only for the day, and a mutual aid plan is in effect for any large-scale incident that may occur in town while the stakes are being held. Crews stand by at the other Elmont stations for the day, and have various orders and staging areas based on call type. Companies conduct their own training and refreshers on the layout of the track and re-familiarize themselves on existing pre-plans, standpipe operations and locations of system controls in the grandstand areas.

This year, the chiefs decided to experiment with a medically equipped quad and a Gator that had transport capabilities from the Syosset Fire Department. Syosset provided the vehicles and additional AMT/EMTs for the day. These vehicles proved to be a useful resource for accessing certain areas that the ambulance could not get to, along with superior maneuverability through the crowds. Three first-aid stations were established at locations around the grandstand by NYRA EMS. A fire department ambulance was designated an "ALS East response team" and to be the ALS intercept if needed by one of the BLS units on site.

Due to the heavy volume of people and vehicle congestion, the Nassau County Police Department had plans in place to shut down roads and designated areas inside and outside the track for emergency vehicles on any fire call or large-scale incident. As would be expected at an event of this magnitude, a very large police presence existed, and it was imperative for the fire and police departments to coordinate with each agency's various needs for the day. The fire department command post had direct communication with the police department, and had officers and high-ranking officials stopping by the firehouse all day. The command post also had radio communications with NYRA security and EMS division during the entire event. Elmont units worked off of a fireground repeater frequency, due to certain "dead spots" within and around the grandstand.

Other resources for the day included six NYRA ambulances (one ALS and five BLS), one ALS Nassau County Police ambulance primarily for law enforcement, but could be used as a last-resort ALS unit, two mass-casualty incident (MCI) equipment stretchers, three medical doctors, four registered nurses, a combination of 22 paramedics/AMT/EMTs, a hazardous materials unit from the Nassau County Fire Marshal's Office and inspectors for routine inspections during the event. During past Belmont Stakes days, fire department responses have included alarm activations, trash can fires, car fires and other small-scale incidents, with the bulk of the activity EMS runs.

This year's Belmont Stakes race went off at 6:25 P.M., with the last race of the day at 6:45 P.M. Years past have proven that the busiest part of the day for the fire and police departments is when the crowds are letting out. It takes a few hours for the traffic to return to normal as patrons leave from three exits on the south side of the race track onto Hempstead Turnpike, a four-lane highway, and onto Plainfield Avenue, a two-lane road, from one exit on the east side. Special procedures are in place for fire department units when responding to the residential areas surrounding the track on other alarms due to this congestion. This year proved to be a rather uneventful day with three minor EMS runs.

The Future of the Track

A Belmont Park redevelopment study is in the works that, if completed, would see major renovations and construction in and around the area. There is a plan to develop eight acres to the west of the track and 28 acres to the south with hotels, shops, restaurants and a "racino" with slot machines at Belmont or a separate casino built on the property and run by the Shinnecock Indians. There also is talk of making the Belmont train station a 24/7 station. This would surely increase the day-to-day population and increase fire department activity at these new developments both on the fire and EMS side. Whatever the future holds, the men and women of the Elmont Fire Department will be prepared for the challenges ahead.

MICHAEL P. CAPOZIELLO is a 25-year member and second assistant chief of the Elmont, NY, Fire Department. He is a Fire Communications Technician 1 with Nassau County Firecom. Capoziello received a Firehouse® Magazine Heroism Award in 1994.